John Seven: Mass MoCA is a world-class institution built on local energy

NORTH ADAMS — To read about it in major outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, what happened this weekend in North Adams was a pretty major event.

I'm speaking of the opening of Building 6 at Mass MoCA, of course, but the funny thing to me is that, on the ground, while it was a pretty major event, it was also an extremely local one, which is one of the things I like about Mass MoCA in general.

Some people travel a long way to see it. For me and so many people I know, it's the place down the street. Our casual lives are interwoven with it. It functions not only on the hard work of its employees, but on the good will and involvement of its neighbors.

It's not only the biggest contemporary art museum in America, it's also one of the most Mom and Pop contemporary art museums in America.

Here's a good example. Artist Nick Cave, whose installation has garnered so much acclaim nationally, dug out his iconic sound suits to be part of the Building 6 celebration for a performance. Who was under those suits when they made their way through the museum campus for the insane, vibrant performance?

Professional dancers from New York City? Nope. Local residents of varying ages giving their time — several hours each day of hardcore practice and then several more on Sunday for the event — in order to add to the experience of the opening and celebrate this turning point in their own fashion.

People you know. Ordinary North Adams people. Your neighbors.

At the same time, the professional artists featured in this very special weekend became part of the landscape of the city. A member of New Orleans Airlift was spotted riding a giant bicycle around town with a top hat on. I saw Jenny Holzer take a break from her work one night, entirely approachable.

Laurie Anderson smiled back at me as she picked up a pizza. Members of Wilco have become common sights around here. You don't need an appointment like a Wall Street Journal writer. You can just say hi.

The Eagle featured special columns by several Mass MoCA luminaries in honor of the big event, but the fact is that people like Curator Denise Markonish and Director Joe Thompson and Director of Communications Jodi Joseph — who shared a wonderful account of growing up here in context of her relationship to the museum — are part of the everyday tapestry in the city.

They're mostly visible when they're in the newspaper, but they are around all the time. The New York Times has to call and arrange interview times, but you can actually talk to them in the grocery store whenever.

And the scores of folks on the security staff, the fabrication staff, in the store, at the ticket counter, and all the hidden jobs there are all around town. You see them in the restaurants and bars, and also pharmacies and other places you just need to go.

We're all just people, together, in the Northern Berkshires.

That was another aspect of Sunday's Mass MoCA celebration that is hard to express in the national press. Even with thousands of people descending for the gallery openings and Cake show, it was very much a community event.

I saw so many people I know and haven't seen for a while, and most remarked how they would come later to concentrate on the art — if that interested them — but that day was about community and celebration. I had conversations with Mass MoCA employees gushing about the importance of community in the museum's success.

It's gone so far past them and us with the museum. There is only us now.

Contact John Seven at Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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