Joseph Thompson reflects on the arc of his career in art

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art team at the Williams College Art Museum in January 1988: from left: Joseph Thompson, Michael Govan and Thomas Krens.

NORTH ADAMS — There have been many sleepless nights for Joseph Thompson during his 32-year tenure as director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Nights spent worrying about how he would keep the museum afloat.

"Almost every Monday morning, I thought we were done," Thompson said of the years after the museum's opening. "From 1999 to 2007, we careened from one near-bankruptcy to the next. We had no cash, no cash reserves, no line of credit, so, we were living off whatever was our current line of revenue."

Just about every Monday, a financial staffer put a note on his office door with a number on it.

"The number would be 24 or 52 or 12. That was the number of thousands of dollars I needed to find, by Thursday, to meet payroll and to pay the essential gas and utility bills. It was hand to mouth those first four or five years," Thompson said Thursday, a day before revealing his long run is nearly over.

But, for every night spent worrying, there have been more days and nights filled with celebrations and triumphs.

"There are hundreds of glorious moments. For me, I get such deep pleasure from every new exhibition that opens, every new performance that we show. It just feels like a victory," Thompson said. "Even these weeks, when we have 42 people in our audience for performing arts events [under COVID-19 restrictions]. They're just lovely. That's what you live for."

Since its opening May 30, 1999, Mass MoCA has hosted 10,016 artists, across all media, and Thompson has been there, behind the scenes, for every one of them.

But, that's all about to change.

Thompson announced Friday that he will step away from his role as director, a position he has held since the museum's founding in 1988. He'll transition to a new role Oct. 29. As special counsel to the board of trustees, a position he will hold for the next year, Thompson will help oversee the succession to a new director and work on special projects.

Deputy Director Tracy Moore has been appointed to serve as interim director.

"I've been trying to find a graceful exit for literally the last 10 years," Thompson said. "I do believe cultural institutions need fresh perspectives. I don't believe that they need new leadership every seven, eight or 10 years. Some people think that, but I don't. I do think that 15 or 20 or 25 years is a pretty good run, particularly when you're dealing with a creative enterprise."

Life list

On the top of his list of things he is most proud of at Mass MoCA is Kidspace. The museum's educational gallery, a collaboration with the Williams College Museum of Art and The Clark Art Institute, launched in 1999. The program brings area schoolchildren to its gallery and the museum for tours and educational programming.

"There's a whole generation of kids who have gone through visiting Mass MoCA once or twice a year, either as part of the Kidspace programming or with their parents, and you've got to wonder what's the effect of that?" Thompson said.

"I know it's something. I see these kids going through there and I think, what's the meaning of having a place like that growing up? I didn't have that growing up. I grew up in a little town in Oklahoma and we had nothing even close."

Another favorite is the annual Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, which launched the following year. David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, who co-founded Bang on a Can, brought the idea for the summer festival and institute to Mass MoCA.

"They had this idea they might find a more appreciative audience among people who go to contemporary art museums. They were looking to expand beyond classical audiences. David called me and proposed the idea that we then called 'Banglewood.' I called Tanglewood, and we decided it wouldn't be such a good idea and it became Bang on a Can and Summer Music Institute," Thompson said.

The Bang on a Can Summer Festival was the first of many partnerships to follow.

"You can really understand Mass MoCA as a network of partnerships with other cultural institutions and organizations," he said.

Imagining Mass MoCA without Thompson at its helm, for many, is inconceivable. And, it's with good reason.

"I've been working here in the director's chair, officially, since 1988," he said.

Early team

But, even before taking on the task of making Mass MoCA a reality, Thompson was part of the early team, along with Michael Govan (now director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), put together by Thomas Krens, then-director of the Williams College Museum of Art.

Krens proposed the museum to then-Mayor John Barrett III as a showcase for collections of contemporary and minimalist art. Krens initially pitched the Windsor Mill and a nearby textile mill, now the Eclipse Mill artists lofts, as candidates for the future museum.

Thompson, an economics major at Williams, had met Krens at the college.

"I really discovered museums as a place that you could actually work, I guess, during my junior year of college. I spent my junior year in Vienna. ... It just dawned on me that there were people who do this for a living, who get to be in this kind of environment for their livelihood," Thompson said.

It was in museums there that he first paid attention to the curators and preparators around him.

"I came back to Williams as a senior, and I think seven of my eight courses that year were art history courses. I graduated with a double major in art history and economics."

After graduating, he spent the better part of a year working in the oil fields of Oklahoma and then moved to Berlin for six months. When he returned home, he stopped at Williams to visit a friend and dropped in at the museum to see one of his art history professors.

Krens, he said, was just beginning to build "what we know as the Williams College Museum of Art today." He hired Thompson as a preparator and put him to work.

"I worked there for three years. I went off and got an MBA at Wharton and a master's in art history from Penn. I was still working part time at the museum at the time, when we started dreaming up Mass MoCA," Thompson said.

"In 1988, when we thought we won the state money, Tom, right at the same moment, was hired to run the Guggenheim [Foundation]. He offered a couple of us jobs at the Guggenheim. I decided to stay behind. Tom flipped me the keys and said, 'Good luck with that.'"

Ups and downs

The next dozen years were filled with ups and downs and programming changes.

"In the run-up to the opening, there were plenty of near-death and plenty of total-death experiences when the project funding was cut. We were told no in 100 different ways," he said. "In those 12 years of purgatory when we were planning and raising funds, the program shifted drastically. That's when it went from 'Mass MoCA 1.0' to 'Mass MoCA 2.0.'

"The changes were monumental. We transformed the visual arts program from one that was fixed, permanent installations to one that was primarily temporary, changing exhibitions. We made performing arts fully half of the entire institution's being," he said.

"Half of our resources, half of our people, half of our emotional bandwidth would go to performing arts, and that was a big change."

After opening, the next six years were spent putting together the museum's financial underpinning: expanding audiences, growing commercial real estate and starting an endowment campaign in 2007.

He ticks off references to milestone moments in the museum's evolution.

"And then LeWitt came into view with Jock Reynolds and Sol LeWitt," he said. "That led to the Anslem Kiefer Hall Art Foundation, and then we met Jeff Tweedy and Wilco and Solid Sound was born. Chris Wadsworth and colleagues came up with the idea of FreshGrass. ... And then, Building 6 came into view with James Turrell."

Mass MoCA's shared focus on visual and performing arts, he said, makes the institution unique in the art world.

"I know of no other institutions that devote fully half of their energy and emotional bandwidth to the visual arts and half to the performing arts," Thompson said. "There's a deep interwoven confluence of the visual and performing arts at Mass MoCA.

"Other institutions, obviously, have performances and stages and auditoriums and dance in the galleries, but I think the depth of the integration here is profound," he said. "I also know of no other institution that was founded with a two-headed mission. No. 1 is to be a platform for exciting new art in all disciplines. No. 2 is to exploit that creativity and the commercial activity around it, as a catalyst for socioeconomic development of our hometown."

The museum has been strategic in its planning, holding large concerts, like the Solid Sound Festival and FreshGrass, in June and September, in the slower, "shoulder season" months.

"We try to syncopate our activities. We look hard at the calendar to find those soft spots, dates that are not full of graduations or this or that, and fill those holes with interesting events that will bring destination business," he said.

Economic ties

When Mass MoCA opened, the city only had one open hotel, the Redwood Motel, that had 16 rooms. That inventory has increased to "245 hotel keys."

Most recently, the museum has been working, he said, on keeping museum visitors here longer, converting "day-trippers" into "overnighters."

"People who stay overnight spend six to seven times more money that day-trippers," he said.

And there is a renewed focus on bringing museum visitors off the main campus and into the downtown business district.

"The Big Bling sculpture and the green park across from City Hall is very much part of that. Obviously, we're providing some greenery in a place that desperately needed it, but we're trying to create a draw that is powerful to get people under the overpass and to the downtown. That's part of what our intention was," Thompson said. "In the category of 'things still to do better,' drawing stronger connections to the city is certainly still there. We've done some, but there is still more to do."

As for the future, Thompson is not sure what awaits him.

"I don't know. I've been so busy here, I've never truly had the luxury of thinking about that. I've got a year to puzzle it out."

Jennifer Huberdeau, can be reached at or 413-281-1866. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

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.