Jodi Joseph: If you've never visited Mass MoCA, now's the time
A couple weeks ago I gave a tour of Mass MoCA to Vicki, a lifetime North Adams resident hoping to further her daughter's interest in concert photography. My first question to visitors I'm not sure are familiar with the space is always, "Is this your first visit to Mass MoCA?" The daughter responded eagerly, "I've been here about a thousand times." She has been a frequent visitor to the museum through Mass MoCA's Kidspace partnership with North Adams Public Schools. Vicki shook her head and said she'd never been, and began apologizing. This was not the first time I've heard "I'm sorry, I really haven't" — often accompanied by wide eyes, a deep breath and a bit of wonder while looking around, drinking it all in.
We set out into the main galleries at a brisk pace as I hit all the talking points: 26 former factory buildings that were built by a textile manufacturer on a 16-acre campus, art that's often just too big to be exhibited in traditional museum spaces, Kidspace with art-making for creative young minds, and a year-round performing arts program that brings nationally recognized music, theater, comedy, dance, and film to the Berkshires, 45 weekends a year.
As we started into the new Building 6 space, it was a beehive: walls were getting painted, art was going up, lighting was being tweaked and floors swept. Still wide-eyed, Vicki repeated again and again, "I can't believe I've never been here before. This is so exciting. You must love your job so much."
When I was a kid, my mother worked for Sprague Electric, the company who occupied the buildings that are now the Mass MoCA campus, so this space made its mark on me early. When Mass MoCA opened in 1999 I was living in Chicago, but I'd been keeping an eye on the project. As a native of North Adams, and a daughter of these glorious buildings, I was focused, even from afar, on its promise.
As I write, Mass MoCA is preparing to open vast new building that is a true marvel: resembling the Millennium Falcon when viewed from above, three 40,000 square foot floors come together like the prow of a ship at the confluence of the north and south branches of the Hoosic River. We open Building 6 with landmark artists, but also with a huge amount of space devoted to Gunnar Schonbeck, a mad-scientist and musicologist, whose handmade instruments will be available for everyone to play. Oh! And there's a concert by one of the most smart, fun bands we could think of to mark the occasion — Cake. This major expansion marks a new era at Mass MoCA, but one still replete with long-time favorites like Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, Wilco's Solid Sound Festival and The FreshGrass Festival...not to mention more than 130,000 square feet of changing exhibitions in our main galleries.
If none of that sounds like your thing — I'm here in hope of changing your mind. Think contemporary art is outside your comfort zone? You're in good company. Perhaps you could approach Mass MoCA instead like an indoor art park or a walking track — the galleries are so vast that as we open the new building, you can walk more than 4 miles without seeing the same thing twice, most of that indoors. Or maybe you're looking for the best lunch spot in Berkshire County. I'm pretty sure that's our museum cafe, which is anchored by a full service ice cream bar. As good as the food on campus, which includes Gramercy Bistro, we have some of the freshest beer around, poured as soon as it's kegged by Bright Ideas, the still-new brewery on campus (which also has killer thin crust pizza and fresh salads). If that's not enough, downtown North Adams is alive with great places to eat and drink too. Mass MoCA is more than a museum.
As you've likely heard, Mass MoCA's commitment to the performing arts makes us a serious concert venue — so come see a show. I mentioned headline festivals like Solid Sound and FreshGrass already, but this summer alone you can enjoy a 1960s soul legend, a 1990s superstar songstress, and a some of the most contemporary music on the planet: a Grammy-winning vocal ensemble who records everything from heavy metal to Tuvan throat singing, a new-music collective who write music in our galleries then perform it on stage. Don't tell me you don't want to see the original Mad Max on our big outdoor screen, complete with a soundtrack played live! There is something here for everyone.
There are plenty of ways to see Mass MoCA without paying admission fee, in case that's a stumbling block. For starters, for 10 months of the year we offer free admission to North Adams residents one day each month. Every year, mid-winter, we ramp up our programming and open the doors on a Saturday for free. (One year this included an Ikea furniture-building competition.) Most local libraries have a handful of four-person admission passes that can be checked out for free. Mass MoCA is constantly in need of volunteers — from marketing and administrative tasks to ushering our guests in for concerts — and we happily reward volunteers with gallery time and free shows. Of course, you can always become a museum member. Galleries are always free to members, who also receive discounted admission to performing arts events.
Vicki was right! I do love my job. I love this institution. But I'm not just trying to sell you on the place (even though that is technically my job). I really want you just to come to Mass MoCA, and to make it yours. One of the most appealing aspects of this museum campus, for me and for many visitors, is how inviting it is. These buildings that have stood for more than a century are rich in human history, evident in their exposed brick and post and beam architecture, worn hardwood flooring, and an impossible number of windows that let the natural light stream in (windows are fairly unusual in the museum world).
My advice for first-timers is to take a tour when you visit (free with admission). Sure, the art can be weird here; we hang trees upside down! But when you hear about the art from one of our lively tour guides, it's not quite so weird after all: it's art about the world we live in now. Whatever you do, just come! And if it's your first time, don't apologize! Mass MoCA is here for everyone, is here for you. Take part.
Jodi Joseph is director of communications at Mass MoCA.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.