From the May 29, 1999, edition.
NORTH ADAMS -- Depressi on, two distinct incarnations, three governors, and enough editorial huffing and puffing to blow down an entire factory complex.
"You can crush it under your shoe, you can spray it with Raid, you can drown it in the toilet, but it just won't die," opined one disgruntled Boston Globe columnist in 1990. But this weekend, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art opens to the delight of its long-suffering supporters and even some of its former detractors.
In the 14 years since the museum was just a twinkle in the eye of Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art and now director of the Guggenheim Museum, one aspect has surprisingly remained unchanged: the $35 million needed from the state to get the project off the ground.
"Wow," said former state Sen. Peter Webber, R-Pittsfield, when reminded just how large the state's commitment to the project is. "Even now, it takes my breath away."
But getting and keeping that $35 million and keeping the state on board took a cast of hundreds; one stubborn mayor, one enthusiastic governor, one skeptical governor, four determined legislators, several artistic visionaries, dozens of desperate business leaders and 654 large and small original donors.
Plus some posthumous help from Serge Koussevitzky. Mayor John Barrett III had other things in mind for the beleaguered Sprague factory when Krens, empowered by then William College President Francis Oakley, came to him with a crazy-sounding idea in 1985.
"I was very busy at that time, trying to do an employee buyout for the Sprague Brown Street operation," Barrett said.
Barrett had good reason to try to save the factory's manufacturing jobs, 35 percent of North Berkshire's industrial base vaporized between 1983 and 1986. But finally, Krens and WIlliams president Francis Oakley prevailed and Barrett agreed to look at what Williams College was contemplating. Krens had initially envisioned the empty 180,000-square-foot Windsor Mill, now in use as a business incubator, as a haven for enormous warehoused pieces of contemporary art that were too large to show elsewhere. The former X-Tyal mill was also on the drawing board at one point.
But Barrett had a bigger idea.
"1986 rolls around, and Sprague says, ‘hey, we're going down the road,"' he said. "The facility to me was such a complex; there were 28 building, they were all connected together, and I didn't want to se it become warehousing."
The plans remained under wraps, but local attorney John DeRosa, who had connections to the administration of former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, started bringing the future presidential contender on board.
"What impressed me was the fact that there were huge quantities of really good artwork sitting around in places unexhibited," Dukakis said. " It seemed to me that it was a terrific idea that it could really spark the economic revitalization of Northern Berkshire."
So terrific that he added MoCA's funding to a convention center bond bill that had been the vehicle for the Worcester Centrum and the Springfield Basketball hall of Fame. Although the governor was on board, Barrett said many in his administration were less than enthusiastic, and an entire legislature had to be convinced that an art museum off Route 2 had a legitimate shot of giving the state's smallest city a shot in the arm.
State Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, was a freshman in 1987. He and then-state Rep. Sherwood Guernsey, D-Williamstown, were charged with shopping the project around the House.
"I remember sitting there as a freshman thinking, "I don't even know how to apply for this money," Bosley said.
The idea of MoCA met its first major setback when the convention center bill died on the floor at the end of the legislative session at midnight on Jan. 5, 1988.
"I can remember calling Krens at 2 in the morning saying, ‘don't bail out on this project,"' Barrett recalled.
But after committing nearly three years to the museum, Krens and Oakley were stunned, tired and wary.
"Here at the college, where the whole project has absorbed an enormous amount of time and energy, we must now turn to other pressing challenges confronting us as an educational institution," Oakley told the Berkshire Eagle the day after.
But Barrett, never one to take a "no" calmly, continued to press. Oakely and Krens kept Williams' support behind the museum, which kept Dukakis behind it as well. So Dukakis filed a bill dedicated solely to MoCA's funding, and Bosley had a tough sell on his hands.
"I went to colleague after colleague whose project had been waiting for years," Bosley said. "Members would come up and say, ‘Dan, I need schools built, and you're talking about $35 million for an arts museum?'"
At least one former representative blamed his campaign loss on his support for MoCA, Bosley said. With Bosley, Guernsey and Webber prodding their colleagues, and with the support of House Speaker George Kevarian and Senate President William Bulger, the MoCA bill made it through the House and Senate in time for Dukakis to sign it in March 1988.
"I think we were all somewhat surprised, but at that time, Dukakis had tremendous power. He was gearing up for his presidential campaign; the Massachusetts Miracle was in full bloom," said Joseph Thompson , executive director of Mass MoCA, who was working on the project for Williams at the time.
Legislatively, MoCA was born, but to breathe on its own it needed funding, and that would prove far trickier.
"State government, by the end of 1988, is in the middle of a serious fiscal crisis," Barrett said. "Eighty-nine, it gets worse, ‘90, it gets worse, then [former Gov. William F.] Weld gets elected and he's going to cut every project. MoCA was first on his list."
Dukakis had lost his presidential bid, his gubernatorial term was ending, and no one in his administration had signed off on the feasibility study that would allow the project to go forward.
‘Twas the week before Christmas, 1990.
"We had no certifications, and it looked incredibly grim," Thompson said. "We literally had a hard time finding anyone to take the study."
Thompson, DeRosa and Barrett all went to Boston and wandered the Statehouse halls in search of someone to sign off. Dukakis finally did, releasing $668,000 for the first detailed engineering plan.
But the check wasn't in Thompson's hand for long.
"I think it was Weld's third or fourth day of office when he said something like ‘no offense guys, but send that money back, because the project's on hold,'" Thompson remembered.
When Weld wouldn't release the money, Thompson and Barrett turned to the community. Within five months, the "500 Club," led by businessman Robert W. Collins, had raised $1 million for the project.
"That caught Governor Weld's attention," Thompson said.
What captured Weld's imagination, according to Bosley, was a now oft-repeated comparison Barrett made to Serge Koussevitzky's creation of Tanglewood.
"The veil lifted off of Weld's face and he said ‘hey, we've gotta do this project,'" Bosley said.
Forcing Weld to keep the project in his sights was the county's new state senator, Jane M. Swift, a North Adams Republican. Now lieutenant governor, Swift said that the urgency of the project put her in touch with many top Weld administrators early on in her career. Weld needed Swift to stand with the 15 other Republican senators to sustain vetoes, so he couldn't pooh-pooh her bread-and-butter project. He agreed not to kill the funding, but he also wanted a less grandiose plan, along with $12 million in private pledges. He began issuing challenges that Thompson said were painful at the time but helpful in the long run.
"He said, you raised one [million dollars], now raise two. Then he said, ‘okay, you've got two, get control of the buildings and get the environmental form signed off,''' Thompson said.
But days before the July 1993 deadline to get a plan to Weld, there was nothing new to report. The Guggenheim, which Krens had left to lead, would be obtaining a large part of the contemporary art collection of an Italian count who had been considering MoCA. And the New York-based institution seemed to be scaling back its affiliation with the North Adams upstart.
Enter Sam Miller, then executive director of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket.
"We had nothing, we had nobody," Barrett said. "The day that we [he and Thompson] met with Miller, we were gone. The project was deader than a doornail."
Miller had been watching MoCA closely from his seat at the Pillow.
"I loved the kinds of works that Joe and Tom were talking about, but it was relatively static," he said. "When I look at mill buildings, I see not just space to put objects in, I see manufacturing. I see work."
And he thought about projects the Pillow had done that could have had more exposure if they'd had more space. Weld extended the July deadline to December, and with Miller's help the project was reborn as a multi-media arts and performance complex that would be home to other arts institutions.
"That was a response both to a challenge from Governor Weld and the realities of what was happening in contemporary art," Thompson said. "It was probably the biggest dividend of the long wait."
"The heartache that the Weld administration caused us made it a better project," Barrett agreed. "And you know what? We got the same size museum we wanted originally."
Finally, funding began falling into line. Weld's Secretary of Administration and Finance Charles Baker was an initial critic of the project but a constructive one, and he threw his support behind it in 1994.
"I think it was between 1994 and 1995 that we began to feel like we were negotiating rather than defending, " Swift said.
The state released $2.9 million in 1993 for another feasibility study and then authorized $15.7 million in 1995 for the first phase of construction. To date, according to Administration and Finance officials, the state has released $24.7 million for the project, the museum has spent $20.5 and has raised about $15.5 million, according to Thompson.
The state will have to wait to see if its investment pays off with the 600 jobs the project promised to indirectly create when it was proposed 14 years ago. About 130 employees are working at the complex in the museum and the high-tech businesses that have already set up shop.
"I think all of us are extremely excited that this day has come, but we also know that the hard work begins now," Swift said. "I'll be truly excited when those 600 people are working."