With new building, Mass MoCA nearly doubles in size

Building 6 sits at the western perimeter of MASS MoCA’s campus, its prow-like triangular footprint shaped by the confluence of the north and south branches of the Hoosic River. (photo by Douglas Mason)

Due to a wrong turn on the country roads that connect Kingston to North Adams, not far from the Massachusetts state line, I arrive late for the press briefing about the new 120,000-square-foot Building 6 opening Sunday, May 28 at Mass MoCA. An intern hurries me through a portion of the vast industrial spaces of the existing museum, exposing me to a speed-version of Mass MoCA’s experiential adventure: snatches of odd vocalizing and somber harmonizing, evocative of Gregorian chants, in a passageway lined with corrugated metal, part of a sound piece composed by Julianne Swartz, followed by a swarm of hundreds of yellowish-white LEDs spanning the wooden ceiling of an 80-foot-long gallery. The piece by Spencer Finch, titled Cosmic Latte mimics the gentle arc of the Milky Way as observed from the Northern Hemisphere and attempts to duplicate the warm color of the universe as recently determined by two astrophysicists.

I finally arrive and sit down amidst the group arranged in the prow of the newly opened building. Roughly shaped like an ocean liner, the building is wedged between the north and south branches of the Hoosic River; and here its soaring spaces, both vertical and horizontal, are beautifully showcased, humanized by the worn, textured brick walls, the legions of huge multipaned windows, which flood much of the space with light, and the vistas of dim spaces marked by receding rows of cylindrical columns.

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Founding director Joseph Thompson, who has been at Mass MoCA since the beginning (he took on the job in 1986, when the facility, most of which was constructed in the late 19th century as a print works, was an abandoned former electronics plant) was at the dais, talking about the newly installed Laurie Anderson studio and exhibition space and the installation of dozens of interactive homemade instruments by Gunnar Schonbeck, which visitors are invited to play themselves. Thompson was instrumental in shaping the museum as a dynamic institution of large-scale contemporary art whose changing exhibits would also serve as a kind of working studio for artists, with an emphasis on performance and interactivity with the public; and the new addition furthers that vision.

It also features long-term installations by James Turrell, Jenny Holzer, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg and others. While the total exhibition space is nearly doubled, there are also additional workshops – for painting, welding and other kinds of fabrication – and a heightened capacity to host large-scale performances. “We’ve upped our game with our ability to host the performing arts,” Thompson said, noting that dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones had been featured at the facility six weeks ago.

Mass MoCA is also extending its reach, with large-scale projections of text by Holzer on the building’s River Street side. A light show created by Luftwerks called Cloudland starting at dusk will feature a series of blinking lights translating a Thoreau poem into Morse code, projected onto Mass MoCA’s tower and four nearby church steeples. Two sound installations downtown will extend the sound works at the museum – one consisting of a pop-up shed behind the new hotel at Main and Marshall, furnished with instruments made from salvaged building materials, built and played by Klaus Hubner and Andrew Schrock of New Orleans Airlift.

One of the new galleries in Building 6 (photo by Douglas Mason)

Thompson said that ushering in the post-industrial economy in the depressed milltown of North Adams has always been central to Mass MoCA’s mission. He said the space itself was developed at a fraction of the cost of the usual museum construction rate: $380 per square foot compared with $3,000 to $5,000. “We don’t gild the lily,” he said, noting that systems are left exposed and the complex’s industrial roughness preserved.

The effect of Mass MoCA, which comprises a third of the downtown, has been profound, although Thompson said that more progress needs to be made: Since the facility opened in 1999, the occupancy rate for downtown’s storefronts has soared from 20 percent to 60 percent. Employing 155, Mass MoCA also rents out space to 36 tenants, which accounts for another 350 people. A new resort hotel built by Wilco; the recent purchase of a nearby industrial complex by Greylock Works, a small manufacturing company from Brooklyn; and plans by Thomas Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim (and former colleague of Thompson’s, many decades ago, at the Williams College Museum of Art) for an 80,000-square-foot model railroad museum featuring dioramas by various contemporary artists should further bolster the town’s fortunes.

Although the beginning was rocky – it took 12 years to open, and the funding seemed iffy at times – Mass MoCA is also a testament to the power of public/private partnerships, Thompson said. The state, unwavering in its support regardless of which political party was in office, coughed up $60 million, which have been matched by $125 million of private money invested in building renovations and programs. The aim is both to improve the quality of life in the community (North Adams residents get free admission) and to promote tourism, he said. Regarding the latter, Thompson said that Mass MoCA is planning to extend its programming in the off-season, given that during the summer, area hotels are at capacity. By nearly doubling its capacity, it also hopes to extend visitors’ stays in the area from a day or less to overnight or a full weekend – which, according to charts Thompson showed, results in a fourfold cost expenditure by tourists.

He said that by incorporating solar, biomass and other efficient green energies, as well as gradually installing interior storms on the windows, the building’s utility bill has been reduced by half, even as the interior space has tripled over time.

Much of the new exhibition space was developed based on existing relationships with artists, which date back to 2000 for Anderson and 2007 for Holzer (who also lives in the area); Turrell expressed his interest in crafting pieces here since the institution’s inception. The underlying denominator is “art that needs a lot of space and a lot of time to make,” Thompson said. None of the work in the museum is permanent – though the exhibition could be extended once time is up, Thompson said – in part because he likes “the idea of a generational referendum. We’re serial daters.” In addition to accommodating more long-term exhibitions, the newly opened building has 30,000 square feet for temporary exhibitions and expanded storage space.

The three floors of galleries, some of which are situated within floating white walls that divide up the space, are organized along a central light well of stairs and catwalks illuminated by skylights. They had been closed up in the 1940s, so the renovation essentially restores the structure to its original light-flooded late-19th-century iteration, when it was used for printing bolts of fabric. The exposed views of courtyards, as well as of the surrounding hills and town, give visitors the sense that “we quadrupled the space,” Thompson said.

The press tour started with a brief explanation by Barbara Ernst Prey of her monumental watercolor of the building interior before the renovation, which hangs in the triangular space of the prow. Around the corner are two other building portraits: giant gray-and-white painterly photographs of the exterior taken from a mobile pinhole camera fashioned from a sea container. The artists, who call themselves the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio, poured water from the Hoosic River over the paper as the images were being printed, imbuing them with ripples and suggesting reflections on the water, evocative of romantic 19th-century photography and a historic reference to the building’s past.

We passed Joe Wardwell, a Boston-based artist, painting his enormous wall drawing, a mashup of text and details of the Massachusetts landscape spanning more than 40 feet. Titled Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States, it was inspired by J. G. Ballard’s 1981 novel Hello America. In bright Pop colors and graphics, the mural incorporates 40 texts culled from political slogans, song lyrics, poems, speech excerpts and other sources; large letters embedded in the landscape of language and silhouetted treetops quote lyrics from the punk band Mission of Burma and others. The work functions as an environment, decipherable in bits and pieces by walking along and scanning the surface, so that one’s own body becomes the link between the dislocated elements of American culture.

Jenny Holzer, Xenon for Berlin, 2001, Light projection, Museumshöfe, Berlin, Text: Mother and Child, 1990, © 2001 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY (photo by Attilio Maranzano)

Freestanding transparent glass open cubicles display works by Robert Rauschenberg, in a 1994 piece titled A Quake in Paradise (Labyrinth); like Wardwell’s wall, the labyrinth is activated by the visitor’s movement through space. An unusual piece by Louise Bourgeois, consisting of a hanging cast-aluminum sculpture called The Couple, which resembles a glistening knot of entrails, easily holds its own in the public space, while two carved marble works by her, never before displayed in public, hold court in a sectioned-off gallery, their white, truncated bodily forms carved into the surface as a deep relief subsumed into the stone, forming a memorial to the flesh.

In contrast to that somber space, the array of instruments made by the late Gunnar Schonbeck, who taught at Bennington College for many years, in two workshops invite the visitor’s own experimental musicmaking. Mark Stewart – a member of Bang on the Can and Paul Simon guitarist, who instigated the project – was on hand to demonstrate the tapping, sawing and plucking of the giant koto, metal harp, piano parts, octobass banjo, chimes, bells and other fanciful creations arranged on the floor or wall, hanging from the ceiling and stacked on shelves. Once the museum is open, “You’ll hear a distant din” upon approaching the space, he said, predicting that kids will leave asking their fathers how they construct their own xylophones.

The interaction will be mediated by artificial intelligence in the series of galleries devoted to Laurie Anderson, who will also use the space as a working studio. Besides one large room displaying her large-scale, lively charcoal drawings of dogs, comprising a kind of dog cosmology, there’s a space filled with silver beanbag couches on which visitors can lounge while listening to her recorded stories and compositions through earphones. In another space, which was still under construction, a row of airline seats will be installed; once seated and wearing special goggles and gloves, people will experience the disintegration of the plane and while reaching out to various objects, such as a pair of glasses or black box, hear a story (it sounds upsetting, but knowing Anderson’s work, she likely turns a deathlike experience into another kind of soothing travel). In yet another room, covered in black-and-white cartoonlike paintings by her, the goggles and gloves will transform the space into a matrixlike architecture accompanied by dreamy narratives.

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The series of galleries devoted to Holzer mainly consists of paintings topped by silkscreened blown-up redacted government documents relating to Guantanamo Bay and the war in Afghanistan after 9/11, which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Law. Many depict handprints, allegedly from the detainees; Holzer made paintings of the documents “because people want to preserve paintings,” said curator Alexandra Foradas. The exhibition also contains two tables of carefully arranged human bones (ethically sourced from hospitals and other places, according to the curator), some of which are embellished with silver bands, which are etched with short texts depicting acts of abuse against woman and children.

The standout exhibition series for me was the nine James Turrell works – even though the installation was not quite complete. Through careful adjustment of illuminated openings constructed out of the wall, in which the light source is usually hidden, Turrell transforms light into a moving, palpable substance. In the most monumental piece, visitors climb a set of stairs as if they were entering a stage and are submersed in a blue light; the blue space extends beyond to another opening in a domed room, which drops off four feet, further obfuscating the perception of space. Every nine minutes, a series of strobe lights in various colors disorients the visitor, creating an optical effect in which one can actually perceive the structure of rods and cones in one’s eyes, according to Thompson.

The Sunday, May 28 opening will be accompanied by food trucks, Nick Cave’s Soundsuit parade, live music and other events, capped off by an outdoor concert by Cake that evening at 8 p.m. From June 23 to 25, Mass MoCA will also host Solid Sound, a music festival featuring Wilco and the band members’ various side projects and live comedy. On August 12, the Louisville quartet My Morning Jacket will be featured. Visit Mass MoCA’s website at www.massmoca.org for tickets.

The museum is now open Wednesday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; after June 26, it will be open from Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets cost $20 general admission, $18 for seniors and veterans, $12 for students with ID, $8 for kids aged 6 to 16 and are free for kids age 5 and under.

Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Massachusetts; (413) 664-4481, www.massmoca.org.