Building 6's big bang attracts thousands to Mass MoCA's new expanded footprint

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PHOTO GALLERY | Building 6 opens

NORTH ADAMS — Joseph Thompson had just guided the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art through the renovation of the massive Building 6, but he forgot one thing.

A ribbon.

So in the moments before building six opened on Sunday, doubling the museum's gallery space, its founding director asked the crowd lined up at its doors to just envision the ribbon.

"I forgot to get it," he said with a chuckle. "That's no problem at all. I'm going to take a cue from Sol LeWitt, the great conceptual artist, and simply announce that in your head right now there's a huge, beautiful ribbon going across. It's the color you want it to be."

Ribbon or not, the completion of the third and final phase of renovations to the former Sprague Electric capacitor plant in North Adams drew thousands through Mass MoCA's gates on Sunday.

The centerpiece of Phase 3, which was funded by a combination of $40 million in private donations and a $25.4 million state grant, is Building 6.

The day quite literally began with a bang, as the Brooklyn United Marching Band roared through a crowd of hundreds in a Mass MoCA courtyard complete with a razzle-dazzle drum corps. Following the band, state and local leaders introduced the renovated Building 6.

Hans Morris, chairman of the Mass MoCA board of trustees, welcomed attendees and expressed gratitude to all who helped make the 30-year vision a reality.

"Since 1990, we've had seven governors, five state senators, three state representatives, two mayors, just one director...I defy you to say one other project in the USA that has as much bipartisan support [as Mass MoCA]," Morris said.

Morris is also an owner and member of the board of directors of New England Newspapers Inc., which owns the Berkshire Eagle.

North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright summed up the thoughts of many locals when he looked around at the formerly closed Sprague mill and said, "Who'd a thought?"

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He noted the many other investments in local economic development likely driven by the growth of Mass MoCA. He also expressed gratitude to the many legislators and seven governors who supported the project through the years, including Govs. Michael Dukakis, Jane Swift, William Weld, Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who as a state senator helped shepherd funding aid for the development of Mass MoCA through the statehouse, addressed the crowd and pointed to the state government as a "shining" example of how to govern with bipartisan cooperation since bipartisan support was essential to the establishment of the museum. She also said there is no better place for Mass MoCA than in North Adams.

Also in attendance were many others who had a hand in pushing uphill for the establishment of a massive contemporary art museum in one of the least populated areas in the state, including former state Rep. Dan Bosley.

"It took a lot of people to make this happen, and it was improbable, but the diligence of so many kept this thing going," Bosley said.

Former state Sen. Benjamin Downing, who sponsored the legislation to fund Phase 3, said it was incredible to see the hard work of so many people come to fruition.

"This community deserves this," he said.

After the speeches, thousands of visitors kept streaming into the museum all day. They took in the major exhibition by Nick Cave before they even ventured into the cavernous Building 6.

There, guests lost themselves in the work of James Turrell, Gunnar Schonbeck, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson, Joe Wardell. They experienced virtual reality, improvisational musical activities, new worlds of illumination and the horrors of war through the experiences of others.

Paulette Wein, a North Adams native, applied for a job as Thompson's assistant at the yet-to-be-opened museum in 1990. 

"They said, `We'd love to hire you, but we have no money,'" Wein said.

But months later the museum had raised enough money to fund an assistant, and Wein was hired. After 26 years, she's still the director's assistant, watching the museum's transformation from an idea few believed would ever happen into the largest contemporary art museum in the country.

"I don't want people to forget the early days, how hard it was," said Wein, who added that at first people thought Thompson and former Mayor John Barrett "were crazy."


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