Opening of Building 6 at Mass MoCA boosts attendance, economy, employment

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GILLIAN JONES — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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NORTH ADAMS — By the time visitors reach the end of Building 6, they might be a little parched.

"You can walk four miles around this place. A lot of people make it a half-mile to the far end of Building 6," said Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Director Joseph Thompson. "Offering people a cup of coffee, soft drink or some water might have made it easier for people to stretch their visit."

Mass MoCA grew last year, and is learning how to adjust its operations for its new scale and maximize the impact its success has on the local economy.

The museum opened its Building 6 in May, after a $65.4 renovation that marked the third and final phase of its transformation from the former Sprague Electric Co. industrial complex into a contemporary art museum and performing arts hub.

In the months that followed, the museum has received some immediate feedback — in the form of visitors.

Most days last year, the museum's attendance was at or nearly double its normal figure.

"We were just as busy as we could possibly be, so that was deeply gratifying," Thompson said.

Likewise, the museum's economic impact on the region has more than doubled in the past decade, according to estimates prepared by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard in fall 2017, after Building 6's opening.

Based on a new "very rough" estimate of 245,000 annual visitors, the museum is generating about $50.8 million of economic activity locally and creating 586 full- and part-time jobs. That's a sizable increase over Sheppard's 2006 estimate of a local impact of $14 million to $24 million once the museum was completely built out.

"All of those things combined means that they've been successful in continuing to be a destination for people," Sheppard said.

This year, the museum will narrow its focus on making all those visitors stay happy — and stay in the Northern Berkshires.

For example, places that serve lunch at or near the Mass MoCA campus found it hard to keep up with all the hungry museum visitors.

"We need to do a better job of letting people know there are other places," Thompson said. "I don't know that we got really clear information to all of our visitors about all of the options. We need to work on that."

The longer that visitors stay in Berkshire County, the theory goes, the more money they will spend here.

"We did a really good job of getting people to the art, and now we just need to have some amenities and services to make it convenient and comfortable for people to remain in Mass MoCA and downtown North Adams longer," he said.

The average length of stay of a Mass MoCA visitor increased from just more than an hour to over two hours since the opening of Building 6.

"We were pleased, but not completely satisfied," Thompson said. "I think, obviously, there's a huge difference between an hour and 15 [minutes] and 2 1/2 hours, but we'd like people to slow down, spend more time with each work of art and explore the entire range of courtyards."

A longer stay in the area also would allow visitors to take in other institutions like the Williams College Museum of Art and Clark Art Institute.

"It's just too much to do in a day, and I think there's a real tipping point that happens," Thompson said. "Ten or 15 years ago, it was a comfortable day trip visit to northern Berkshire County, but I think that's no longer true."

The museum launched the North Adams Exchange program last year to draw summer visitors downtown, but Thompson acknowledged that it had mixed results.

The "Game On" free arcade on Main Street was popular, but the food trucks it placed on Marshall Street didn't see much business.

"We'll do the things that worked again and try to fix the things that didn't," he said.

Keith Bona, owner of Berkshire Emporium and Antiques on Main Street, said he saw similar sales numbers compared to years past, despite the museum's increased attendance and efforts to draw people downtown.

"I was hoping to see more with the expansion, but unfortunately, I didn't see the uptick that I was hoping for," Bona said. "It wasn't our highest year, it wasn't our lowest year."

But Bona stopped short of blaming the museum for his flat numbers.

"They're doing their job of getting people into our city border's, which, to me, is one of the harder steps," Bona said. "The downtown businesses and the downtown property owners are the ones, in my opinion, that really need to step up."

Glenn Maloney, president of the North Adams Chamber of Commerce, shared the view that the city's business community needs to shoulder responsibility for benefiting from Mass MoCA's success.

"We certainly want MoCA to help as much as they humanly can, but at the end of the day, it's up to us," Maloney said. "We have to take responsibility to do our part, and it's not just Joe Thompson driving a bus and dropping people off downtown."

Maloney noted that the chamber is part of an effort to gather data on downtown visitation, but he stressed the importance of focusing on more than just the city's downtown. T&M Auto, where he is general manager, has taken on work directly related to the museum — such as painting the ladders used to bring museum visitors into the clouds of Nick Cave's popular "Until" exhibit that was shown at Mass MoCA from 2016 to 2017.

The museum has already begun to collaborate with downtown stakeholders, including Bona, to plan for 2018.

"I'm pleased to see they're stepping up and trying to figure out ways to connect it," Bona said.

As for the museum's attendance, it's unclear how sustainable the recent spike in attendance will be in 2018.

"Some of that is maybe a new base," Thompson said. "How much? We certainly do not expect (2018) numbers to be as strong as (2017)."

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-496-6376.


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