BEIJING — I'm writing from Beijing, China where I have just witnessed the future for the Northern Berkshires.
Last Thursday, Barbara and I flew non-stop from Boston to Beijing. On Saturday, we took a taxi 10 miles outside of the center and were dropped off at the edge of a former industrial/commercial neighborhood turned arts district called 798 Art Zone.
Describing 798 Art Zone is tricky; it's a New York-style SoHo and Chelsea, only more diverse, about a 20-square block pedestrian district with ample places to eat after touring galleries, shops, boutiques, museums, and trendy art/tech/design/fashion studios — all attracting a large audience that economically supports hundreds of spaces.
Several entities call themselves museums — with galleries comparable in size to Mass MoCA. Some cavernous spaces were hosted by international corporations and foreign organizations. For example, a Danish cultural exhibition demonstrated the success of good urban design. Down a block, Audi had a corporate building with show-space on the retail level. Nearby, Sony sponsored a large exhibition for an artist using its latest video technology. At least one New York gallery had its branch alongside the hundreds of "Chelsea-type" galleries.
For 25 years, I've been preaching about North Adams becoming a cultural theme park, with Mass MoCA acting as the big "roller-coaster" attraction, but then having additional cultural "rides" all over the campus, encouraging visitors to explore over several days as they do at Disneyworld. While this is beginning to happen as North Adams adds artists and art spaces, in Beijing, I actually experienced what we can become.
My envisioned "cultural theme park" includes Williamstown, with the Clark Art Institute and the soon-to-expand Williams College Museum of Art serving as anchors (perhaps WCMA will use the Williams Inn site to cash in on a potential 150,000 visitors), and the town of Adams, which is already populating itself with artists in former commercial spaces.
In the center is North Adams with an expanded Mass MoCA. Tom Krens' proposed "Global Art Center" will sit on the city's western edge with 160,000 square feet easily competing with the other museums. My own Berkshire Art Museum with 25,000 square feet in two buildings at the top of Main Street will someday be joined with the 130,000 square foot Beaver Mill.
These five large art destinations only become the first layer. We already have artist mills with individual studios and galleries; we have MCLA's Gallery 51 (and if it wants to compete, it will have to step up to the plate with more serious space) and Maker's Mill right on Main Street. We have all sorts of new galleries, like "Outside," which is showing New York artists, the grass roots Common Folk, and gallery ventures like the Ferrin-Reeves Galleries within the MoCA complex aimed for bigger spending clients.
The "buzz" is out, it seems, as artists are drifting into town and purchasing houses. Their presence is adding up, helped by such projects as Greylock Mill, Redwood Motel, and the miniature train museum proposal for Heritage State Park.
To get to critical mass, we need a bit more — additional alternative art spaces, branches of two or three New York galleries, and a few more artists smart enough to purchase work-exhibition space in the downtown while prices are still cheap. Then we need directed marketing and our local government fertilizing these efforts.
How do we get sufficient visitors to attain critical mass? Obviously, Beijing has ample residents who only have to ride some distance to the 798 Art Zone. However, within three hours are Boston and New York with almost half that many potential customers. Already the Clark and MoCA can individually attract 150,000-200,000 visitors annually; a larger coordinated campus filled with cutting edge art can certainly increase that number.
Some of these visions are coming to fruition despite lack of political action, but the area will not see its full potential unless officials see the light. Even Pittsfield, if it wants to get into the act, can join by converting some of GE's abandoned giants. For example, what Tanglewood is to the Boston Symphony, the 100,000 square foot PPDC building with 120-foot ceilings could be the summer home to a Boston museum for powerful exhibitions that would compete with MoCA.
How can North Adams officials help? Governments are responsible for infrastructure and with smarter long-term vision, the city can:
* Specifically market its real estate (Windsor Mill, Notre Dame, public services buildings).
* Change zoning regulations to allow for live/work/gallery in nearby residential areas and change zoning throughout the city for more accessible arts' use.
* Implement free downtown parking and schedule pedestrian-only downtown summer weekends.
* Persuade the larger institutions to promote jointly and include multi-day ticketing and multi-day travel packages.
* Facilitate tourist information centers and staff greeters at strategic places.
* Support local shuttle vehicles (trolleys, electric carts and hand-pedal rickshaws).
* Create bike lanes connecting various neighborhoods and sites.
* Educate departments to support this growth so that the enormous new investment can increase property values and allow us to lower taxes while increasing city services.
Beijing's 798 Art Zone is a living example of the prosperity and excitement that can come to the Northern Berkshires. China is better at investing in long-term and ambitious master plans. Its infrastructure is speeding ahead of us. While we can't address the national issues, in our own neighborhood and for our own good, we can certainly support what has already organically grown in the Northern Berkshires.
Eric Rudd is an artist and founder of the Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams.