From idea to reality | Mass MoCA: A timeline

Joseph Thompson of Mass MoCA talks to students from the University of Massachusetts on April 6, 1991.

NORTH ADAMS — Located at the convergence point of the north and south branches of the Hoosic River, activity on the 16-acre site of Mass MoCA has long mirrored the economic development of the last 200 years.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, the site was home to a grist mill and a saw mill. Under the ownership of Jeremiah Colegrove, the site included an oil mill, a clothing works and a carding house. The first cotton mill, the Windsor Print Works, was located on Marshall Street in 1813. Also calling the site home were wagon- and sleigh-makers; the headquarters for the Johnson Grays, a Civil War unit out of North Adams; and the North Adams Ironworks, which later forged armor plates for the Civil War ship, the Monitor.

In 1860, the Arnold brothers purchased a portion of the site and build the Arnold Print Works. The original print works burned in December 1871, but the brothers rebuilt. In 1874, Albert C. Houghton, later the city’s first mayor, purchased the print works. The print works remained in operation until 1943. At that time, Sprague Electric purchased the Marshall Street complex and moved the majority of its operations there. By 1966, Sprague was the city’s largest employer with 4,137 jobs. In 1981, Sprague Electric was sold to the Penn Central Corp. In 1985, Sprague Electric  was renamed the American Annuity Group. That same year, after 43 years of operation in the city, Sprague closed the Marshall Street plant.

Here is a timeline of events that led to the creation of Mass MoCA and highlights of its subsequent years of operation.

November 1985: Williams College Museum of Art Director Thomas Krens conceives the idea for what will become Mass MoCA while visiting Germany.

February 1986: Krens meets with North Adams Mayor John Barrett III and proposes turning a vacant industrial building in the city into a showcase for collections of contemporary and minimalist art. The initial proposal looks at the Windsor Mill and a former textile mill, now the Eclipse Mill artists lofts, as viable candidates for the future museum.

Krens and Barrett  look at the former Sprague Electric Co. as a possible exhibition site.

May 5, 1987: North Adams and Williams College  announce they will seek $35 million from the state’s Civic and Convention Center program to renovate the 28-building Sprague Electric Co. complex into a 435,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, with a hotel, restaurant, art book warehouse, and stores. The $35 million sought is half the projected cost of the $72 million

Nov. 5, 1987: North Adams City Council backs plans for Mass MoCA; 11,000-signature local petition sent to Statehouse.

Jan. 5, 1988: Convention Center funding bill dies in the Legislature.

Jan. 12, 1988: Gov. Michael S. Dukakis submits Mass MoCA as separate state funding proposal.

January 14,  1988: Thomas Krens is named director of the Guggenheim Foundation.

March 14, 1988: The Legislature issues its approval of a $35 million bond issue for the museum. Gov. Dukakis signs the bill eight days later. Projected opening of the museum is 1991.

May 25, 1988: Mass MoCA Cultural Commission appointed by Mayor Barrett and North Adams City Council. Krens is name chairman of the commission.

June 26, 1988: Convention center portion of plan dropped.

Aug. 2, 1988: The Mass MoCA Cultural Commission approves the use of $1.7 million in state for a feasibility study. Joseph C. Thompson, Krens' colleague at the Williams College Museum of Art, is named founding director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Oct. 18, 1988: Mass MoCA design team is named: Skidmore Owens & Merrill, Frank O. Gehry Associates and Venturi Scott Rauch.  Sum of $725,000 allocated out of $1.7 million feasibility budget for design services.

Feb. 11, 1989: Mass MoCA warehouse ball a sellout; 800 tickets sold at $50 each, with 500 turned away.

April 26, 1989: Mass MoCA planners reported to be rethinking strategy — using state funds to build museum first, then attract developers.

Oct. 3, 1989: Preliminary feasibility study scales down museum and commercial space by half; cuts retail space from 15 to eight spots, hotel concept changed to condominiums.

June 1990: MoCA planning reported behind schedule. State Inspector General Joseph R. Barreal says North Adams will have to put up $10.7 million share of financing and cover deficit if attendance falls below projections. Museum now expected to open in summer of 1993.

Dec. 9, 1990: Krens resigns from Mass MoCA Cultural Commission. Modified feasibility study scales back plans to a first phase of five buildings: 220,00 square feet and $46 million budget. Commercial development, hotel/condos, art book warehouse, and high-tech museum concepts dropped.

Dec. 17, 1990: State Division of Capital Planning and Operations withholds approval of MoCA feasibility study because of uncertainty project can attract 30 percent private funding.

Dec. 28, 1990: Dukakis signs amendment to feasibility study agreement, allocating $680,000  for MoCA planning after he leaves office. State funding conditional on successful fundraising and securing of a museum operator, art collection.

Jan. 14, 1991: MoCA 500 Fund Committee organizes to raise $500,000 in Berkshires over six months as part of 3-year campaign to raise $3 million regionally and $9.1 million nationally to finance endowment and capital construction.

Jan. 31, 1991: Amid $1 billion state deficit, Gov. William Weld freezes MoCA funds. State refuses to release $688,000. Barrett threatens to sue.

June 10, 1991: MoCA fund drive tops $1 million.

July 31, 1991: Gov. Weld says he wants more private, less public funding for MoCA before release of $688,000 in planning funds.

Oct. 17, 1991: Gov. Weld, Barrett sign agreement releasing $688,000 in planning funds.

March 6, 1992: MoCA planners announce search for museum operator.

May 1, 1992: Three museums — Guggenheim, Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and Art Gallery Toronto — express interest in MoCA operation.

Dec. 12, 1992: Barrett reports nearly 50 percent of $12 million raised but there is no museum management agreement yet.

Dec. 31, 1992: Gov. Weld grants MoCA a seven-month extension. Planners say they have firm commitments of $4.1 million. Barrett advocates phased approach of one building a year over five years.

May 17, 1993: Barrett says fund drive still at $4.5 million mark. Says he will not seek further extension. Appears the project will die.

Dec. 2, 1993: Mass MoCA plan springs back to life. Thompson and Sam Miller, director of Jacob’s Pillow, announce several cultural venues will collaborate with Mass MoCA. Thompson re-envisions the museum to include the performing arts and sections of space for commercial use.

Dec. 31, 1993: Gov. Weld officially supports Phase 1 of Mass MoCA.

May 1994: Gov. Weld officially releases first funds for Mass MoCA construction.

Sept. 8, 1994: Mass MoCA signs lease agreement with first tenant, computer animation company Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company.

April 24, 1995: State approves Mass MoCA bill. Bruner/Cott & Associates submit final plans for the museum complex. The project is certified and approved by the state, and $18 million is released to the project.

1996:  The inaugural project, "Desire," an exhibition of music, photography and large-scale installation pieces by David Byrne of the Talking Heads opens.

1997: The Clark and Mass MoCA organize the conference, "Reimagining Museums for New Art," on the changing role of contemporary art museums.

1998:  The Clark sponsored "EarMarks," one of the largest installations of site-specific sound art on the East Coast. Organized by Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson, "EarMarks" was located in seven Berkshire County sites, including at the Clark.

May 30, 1999: Mass MoCA opens with 200,000 square feet of space open to the public. It is the largest center of contemporary visual and performing art in the United States.

1999: KidSpace, a collaboration with The Clark and the Williams College of Art, opens. The Clark also sponsors "Tree Logic," the upside-down tree installation in MoCA’s courtyard.

2004: Mass MoCA celebrates its fifth anniversary.

October 2006: Mass MoCA  announces a $6 million, privately funded project to renovate 27,000 square feet in Building 7. The new galleries, designed by Bruner/Cott, will house a retrospective of about 50 large "Wall Drawings" by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. The project is a collaboration with the Yale University Art Gallery.

Dec. 16, 2006: “Training Ground for Democracy,” a commissioned piece by artist Christoph Büchel fails to open. The museum has spent $250,000 on the piece.

March 29, 2007: Mass MoCA confirms Christoph Büchel has not worked on the exhibit since December. Büchel charges, in a Globe article, that Mass MoCA violated verbal and contractual agreements that stipulated no one was to enter the exhibit prior to its completion.

April 11, 2007: Museum officials announce that $25 million of a $37 million “Permanence Fund” has already be raised. This is the first time the museum will have an endowment fund.

May 22, 2007: Mass MocA takes Büchel to court: seeks declaratory ruling from U.S. District Court in Springfield to allow the abandoned materials and partial constructions to be opened to public view.

Sept. 21, 2007: US. District Court  Second Circuit rules that Mass MoCA can open “Training Day” to the public.

Sept. 26, 2007: Mass MoCA announces it will scrap Büchel’s “Training Day” despite a ruling allowing it to be opened to the public. Instead, it reopens Gallery 5 with a Jenny Holzer exhibit.

April 2008: Teams of Sol LeWitt’s former assistants  and newly hired apprentices arrive at Mass MoCA to prepare 105 “concept” pieces for display.

Nov. 16, 2008: Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective opens. The exhibit is slated to be on view until 2033.

Jan. 29, 2010: A federal appellate court rules Büchel’s claims of copyright infringement against Mass MoCA bear merit and should be heard by a federal jury. The issue is returned to the U.S. District Court in Springfield. However, the court also upholds four rulings by the district court, reaffirming that Mass MoCA did not violate Büchel’s rights under the Visual Artist Rights Act of 1990.

June 16, 2010: Mass MoCA acquires a large field near the complex and names it “Joe’s Field.”

Aug. 13 -15, 2010: Wilco hosts the first Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA at Joe’s Field.

December 2010: A settlement between Mass MoCA and Büchel ends the long-standing feud between artist and museum. The settlement dismissed all claims and allowed Büchel to remove some of his work from the museum.

April 26, 2011: Mass MoCA officials announce plans for the renovation of Building 6 and the creation of 40,000 square feet of gallery space on the foundation of Building 16. The space will eventually host the museum’s second permanent temporary exhibit of Anselm Kiefer’s work.

June 23-25, 2011: Solid Sound Festival returns for a second year. Wilco announces the festival will return in 2013.

Sept. 24-25, 2011: FreshGrass: A Festival of Bluegrass and Art debuts at Mass MoCA.

Oct. 3, 2013: Anslem Kiefer exhibit opens

March 6, 2014: Mass MoCA officials announce a $25.4 million state grant that when combined with $40 million in private donations will allow the museum to begin the $65.4 million renovation of Building 6, which nearly doubles the size of the museum’s gallery space.

May 28, 2017: Mass MoCA’s third and final phase, the opening of Building 6, is realized.


Berkshire Eagle archives; “Mill Town, Factory Town, Cultural Economic Engine: North Adams in Context,” a 2006 report by C3D (; Mass MoCA,; Downside Up The Movie website,; North Adams Historical Society.

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.