Making art from the patina of the mills

Thursday July 4, 2013

NORTH ADAMS -- In 1984, Art McConnell, one of the two remaining employees at Sprague Electric Company, got a call to install electrical wires for an office space in the nearly-vacant factory.

Now, Thompson is director of the factory-turned-museum, Mass MoCA, and McConnell is Operations Manager.

In creating the museum, the architects were careful to preserve hints of the building’s history. Bricks with peeling paint, exposed woodwork, and metal pillars contribute to a palpably industrial feel.

"You can feel the building’s former life," said curator Susan Cross.

Especially, she said, she felt it at this year’s Solid Sound Festival, when about 7,500 people visited the campus. 4,100 people worked at Sprague at the company’s height in 1966, according to the Eagle archives.

McConnell, who worked changing motors on top of the boiler plant, made a smooth career shift as the factory transformed, but not everyone could say the same. The age of North Adams as a city of industry appeared gone.

"Some of the buildings you’d walk into and it would look like people had just fled the day before," Cross said.

In 1999, the museum opened with 200,000 square feet of developed space. It has since developed an additional 200,000 feet of space, and of that, 110,000 square feet is commercial real estate, most of which is leased. This leaves 290,000 square feet for gallery and performance space and museum operations. 200,000 square feet remains for potential development. Mass MoCA is always eager to find ways to develop that space, said Director of Communications Jodi Joseph.

Occupied or unoccupied, that space can serve as inspiration to the artists.

Artists will use found objects from these spaces as material in their artwork. Nari Ward’s 2012 work, "Mango Tourists," used Sprague capacitors. These were one of the plant’s main exports.

The Sol LeWitt building was filled with capacitors before it was transformed, in 2008, into a building filled with vivid murals, according to curator Denise Markonish.

To demonstrate the setting that inspired these works, last week Education Coordinator Rachel Heisler led an informal tour behind closed doors.

The Building 5 storage space is a huge, looming room. Creaky wood floorboards, iron pillars, rows of tall rectangular windows. There were once more than 4,000 of these windows in the factory.

It’s easy to imagine a room filled with parts of machinery ready to be assembled. Now it’s filled with pieces of former and future exhibitions.

In one corner is a cardboard re-creation of one of the main galleries, which Markonish used to plan the recent "Oh, Canada" exhibit. Across the room and underneath clear plastic are the neon-colored benches of Sanford Biggers’ "The Cartographer’s Conundrum," which closed last October.

The room also houses dozens of huge, hand-fashioned instrument, with the name "Schonbeck" stencilled on them. These unusual string and percussion instruments are made by Bennington College music professor Gunnar Schonbeck and are used annually in the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival.

This is also the space where alternative rock band Wilco found peace and quiet during this year’s Solid Sound Festival.

Mass MoCA’s unusual space is a draw for certain artists; tall and broad gallery spaces allow for unusual exhibitions. It can also be a draw for performers. Master Electrician Matt Guyton said that the unusual space can attract musicians, actors and dancers because it can be altered easily: performers will ask that the Hunter Center for the Performing Arts be set up to mimic a future performance. That way, they can practice for later shows.

The visual artists often find inspiration in the museum’s aesthetic. Ward, for example, found inspiration in parallels between the shift from industry to tourism in North Adams and Jamaica for his exhibition; both places, he argues, have made a shift in terms of identity and economy, while honoring their pasts.

In other cases, the space allows for innovative exhibitions. Stephen Vitiello, a sound artist, was invited to do a piece in a skeletal boiler house on the museum’s property.

"He immediately began tapping on things [inside the boiler house]," Markonish said. The skeleton of a building is filled with three floors of metal scaffolding, pipes, and huge rusted boilers.

Vitiello asked local science fiction writer Paul Park to write a site-specific piece, and John Sprague, related to the owners of the factory, to help record the story. Now the sound exhibition, "All Those Vanished Engines," fills the space.

It’s a tribute to the past, in many ways: "Sometimes I’ll be dreaming of work, dreaming of the power plant, dreaming of North Adams in the old days," says the main character in the story, a blind Sprague engineer.

In the mid-80s, at Sprague’s end, McConnell’s friends were skeptical of an art museum’s taking their former place of work.

"They can’t believe the transformation," he said, "how a little thing like Mass MoCA can go on to creating more jobs again." Today, Joseph estimates the museum employs 80 year-round staff and more in the summertime.

There’s no separating Mass MoCA from Sprague.

"We’re always talking about the past here," Markonish said.


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