In his own words: Joseph Thompson

Mass MoCA's director describes the evolution of the museum

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The Eagle asked that I write about The Moment, the sparking instant when our vision for the upcoming Building 6 expansion at Mass MoCA coalesced into a singular idea.

The truth, however, is that there was no such Damascus Road epiphany.

Instead, a gradual augmentation of ideas, art, relationships, and resources — from many quarters, and over many years — accumulated into a program that is as richly patinated as the layers of paint on Mass MoCA's historic masonry walls.

In that way, Building 6 — which we also now refer to as The Robert W. Wilson Building, in honor of one of our earliest and most generous supporters — is an organic extension of the entirety of Mass MoCA as it has come to be over the past 30 years, which, by the way, is a markedly different institution than originally envisioned.

That original conception for Mass MoCA did have its roots in a sudden flash.

In 1986, Thomas Krens, then-director of the Williams College Museum of Art, returned from a trip to Europe excited by the realization that a large swath of recent art — mainly works by the group of artists known as minimalists, including Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin — could be well-shown in simple, industrial buildings that in many ways were the antithesis of the pristine, white-walled, artificially lit, hermetically sealed boxes that were standard-issue museum space at that time.

In Kassel, Germany, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland (and also at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, founded in 1977, and in Los Angeles California, where architect Frank Gehry's Temporary Contemporary had just been created from the hulking remains of a former police garage), big industrial-strength buildings, and warehouses, were being renovated as exciting, if rough-hewn, spaces for new art.

In North Adams, a city then reeling from the closing of its major employer, Sprague Electric, there happened to be a lot of such space, available for pennies on the dollar.

That original, revelatory idea of Tom's — Mass MoCA No. 1, as I call it — eventually got realized, and spectacularly so, in Beacon, N.Y., not North Adams. Dia:Beacon became the permanent home of the the Dia Foundation collection under the leadership of its then-director Michael Govan, who — like me — had been part of the small staff at the Williams College Museum of Art at the time Krens had his moment on the road to Damascus. At Dia, in beautifully refurbished industrial spaces on the banks of the Hudson River, works of art of unusually large dimension — art requiring generous lateral and vertical clearances, lots of light, and hefty floor-loading capacity — are exquisitely installed on permanent display, a largely fixed-in-place monument to an important body of art of the later quarter of the 20th century.

Mass MoCA No. 2 — as I think of the institution that our excellent staff and board of trustees finally built — is also predicated on the adaptive re-use of industrial buildings for art, though the crystalline singularity of the original conception, as realized at Dia:Beacon, is nowhere to be found. In place of fixed, Apollonian permanence, Mass MoCA is best known for its Dionysian program of temporary changing exhibitions, performing arts, and ambitious new commissions which rotate every year. In place of a monument to late 20th-century visual art, mostly sculpture fixed in place, the performing arts have come to occupy a full 50 percent of our programmatic focus, to say nothing of staff, budget, and emotional bandwidth.

To accommodate the breadth of creative and artistic activity that is at the core of Mass MoCA today, we opened with a black box theater space of massive scale — the Hunter Center — then added superb production and fabrication facilities and grew a deeply talented staff to support and nurture new works by artists at all stages of their career, from established artists such as Nick Cave and Lucinda Childs to mid-career artists Spencer Finch and Taylor Mac, to emerging artists Alex Da Corte and Lucy Alibar.

Building 6 grew out of that adventurous, cross-genre vibe, and it's no accident that it features handmade musical instruments (by Gunnar Schonbeck) and an audio-video mixing studio (for Laurie Anderson) right at its very heart.

That fundamental shift in programming was the result of many factors and influences.

For one, when I was out raising money and trying to win private support as a means to leverage public funding, lots of collectors and others who loved the Minimal Art, which was the core of the Mass MoCA No. 1 concept, asked me if anyone would come twice. This nagging question — from people like me who loved that art — gave me pause, and led to some deep thinking about the dynamics of repeat visits, which are triggered more often than not by changing exhibitions.

Secondly, my friend Sam Miller, then of Jacob's Pillow, loved to point out that performing artists needed time and space for their work every bit as much as visual artists.

Third, it was not lost on those of us working on the early planning for Mass MoCA that the cultural profile and brand of the Berkshires — especially 30 years ago — was largely shaped by music, dance and theater. The Clark, Norman Rockwell Museum, Berkshire Museum, and WCMA were not the programmatic dynamos that they are today (and Mass MoCA did not yet exist, of course).

Fourth, many of the artists that most intrigued me personally refused to stay put within boxes defined as "performing arts" or "visual arts." One of the first exhibitions I organized was a rollicking, challenging, multimedia extravaganza by David Byrne, followed by an installation of sound art that ambled across Northern Berkshire County.

Robert Wilson's 14 Stations, which we showed in 2002, was as much opera as sculpture — replete with sound, light and video.

And while nearly 6,000 came to hear Beck in concert at Mass MoCA in 2014, some may not know why he decided to play here. Beck had composed part of the soundtrack for Tim Hawkinson's magisterial " berorgan," which occupied our signature Building 5 gallery in 2000 and 2001, so this was a return trip for him, but on stage instead of within the galleries.

Our relationship to Wilco, whose Solid Sound Music and Arts Festival takes up residency at Mass MoCA every other summer, is similarly based on a confluence of interests. Though Wilco is without a doubt one of the greatest rock and roll bands working today, Jeff Tweedy is also a notable poet; Nels Cline and Glen Kotche are leading figures within the avant-garde new music scene; Patrick Sansone is a deeply skilled curator of photography; Michael Jorgenson's interest in electronica and theater has involved him in some of the most cutting-edge music projects to hit our stages (sans-Wilco); and John Stirratt is one of the most inventive collectors and users of "found sound" that we've ever met.

In short, Wilco embodies Mass MoCA's breadth of programmatic interests, all in one hell of a band. Like Mass MoCA, all of these artists and performers deny boundaries.

The dividends of Mass MoCA's freewheeling "cross-over" program are many. Perhaps the most obvious reward is our lively and expanding audience. A constant rotation in the galleries and a dynamic roster of year-round live events means repeat visitation from our most local and loyal visitors, and innumerable reasons for patrons from afar to find reasons to come.

Some benefits are technical; a lighting designer from the world of theater knows in her little finger what a museum lighting designer knows in his whole body. Likewise, art fabricators and exhibition designers make superb prop-makers, bringing serious chops in welding, rigging, woodworking, and audio-visual production values.

It turns out that people who love music by new music ensembles such as Bang on a Can come more frictionlessly from the demographic of contemporary art lovers than from those who love more traditional forms of music.

This fluidity and permeability grows audiences, and creates all sorts of meaningful connections. Every single performance we host or produce introduces new audiences to the art of our galleries, and every single day we greet museum visitors with invitations to enjoy new forms of performance-based art.

Building 6 advances that idea by featuring artists across all disciplines. It also builds on an idea we launched nine years ago with the opening of Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, thanks to our partnership with the Yale University Art Gallery and Williams College Museum of Art, which brought a powerful core to our freewheeling program of changing exhibitions and performances: a gravity-rich proton to the swirling electrons of our changing exhibitions and performances.

With the Hall Art Foundation, the idea that we launched with Sol LeWitt (a kind of "museum within the museum") was extended to include a landmark 15-year installation by the celebrated German artist Anselm Kiefer. (As a side note, Building 6 owes a lot to our collaboration with Kiefer and the Halls. We tried and failed to fit the Kiefer exhibition within Building 6, but those design experiments with the architecture firm Bruner/Cott & Associates ultimately paved the way to our Building 6 "museum within the museum" concept, while Kiefer and the Hall Art Foundation landed happily in Building 15). And, notably, a "stitch in time" gift by the Hall Art Foundation to repair the roof on Building 6 made the astoundingly economical renovation of the project possible. I hate to think what the project would have cost had we let the roof fail in 2010.

Building 6 goes deeper yet, with long-term installations devoted to the light and space environments of James Turrell and the marble sculpture of Louise Bourgeois. Against those milestone installations — and for the next 15 years, at least — Laurie Anderson and Jenny Holzer will juxtapose a series of changing shows of their work, encompassing both retrospective exhibitions and new work in all media. With the exception of Louise Bourgeois, these are all artists with whom Mass MoCA has had a long and rewarding relationship. (James Turrell has been developing his ideas for Mass MoCA for nearly 30 years, and both Jenny and Laurie have made and shown a lot of great work here over many years.) Even Louise's work came to Mass MoCA through the efforts of long-time friends of the museum, who recognized the fit and opportunity.

Ours is an unusual museological model — most museums don't turn over curatorial authority, and precious space, to others — but we welcome the incremental, organic layering of outside, independent voices, and multiple points of view. In many ways, Mass MoCA feels a lot more like a turntable than a white box of perfectly illuminated space or maybe more like two turntables and a microphone.

Joseph Thompson is director of Mass MoCA.


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