Mark Taylor: Latest North Adams vision is of a living work of art

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> Something unexpected and intriguing is happening in North Adams. Thomas Krens, the director emeritus of the Solomon R. Guggenheim, has proposed a vision that could transform Northern Berkshire County into one of the leading cultural centers in the country.

Working with North Adams officials, Mr. Krens has developed a plan to create two new museums — the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (EMRCA) and the Global Contemporary Art Museum. The scheme also includes reopening the Mohawk Theater on Main Street, a Massachusetts Museum of Time, and a destination luxury Art Hotel also on Main Street. From anyone else this plan would seem unrealistic, but Thomas Krens has a proven track record of transforming museums and the cultural landscape by doing what others regard as impossible.

The first public suggestion of Mr. Krens' "Cultural Corridor" plan was at a meeting of the North Adams Airport Commission in August of last year. This was followed five months later by a press conference introducing the Heritage Park revival, during which Mr. Krens, former Governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld, and the architect Richard Gluckman gave an extensive description of the EMRCA proposal with photographs, models, and videos. Most recently, Mr. Krens presented a 375-page Concept Development Study and a detailed 16-foot scale model of the EMRCA to the North Adams Redevelopment Authority.

Beauty and benefit

As a longtime resident of Williamstown and Berkshire County, I attended all of these public meetings. Though I have been impressed by the positive responses from local and state officials and the public, I have been even more impressed by what has been missing from these discussions. As a sometime artist who writes and teaches about philosophy, art, and architecture, I cannot help but note that what ties this vision together is a coherent sense of aesthetic beauty that balances scale, detail, and proportion with an abiding sense of social benefit.

A close consideration of the EMRCA plans and models reveals an impressive, consistent and subtle aesthetic that assembles apparently disparate components into a coherent whole. The spatial architecture of the building, natural light, technology, precision scale model trains and modeling technique, history of American railroads, and technologies that transformed this country come together to form a narrative that retells the story of North Adams and its citizens in a surprising way.

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The museum building consists of two primary sections: the existing late 19th century main freight station, built in 1894, and the new 21st century addition integrating past and present. The new glass atrium entrance at the juncture of the new and old buildings defines the museum stylistically, and dissolves the boundary between the museum interior and the exterior courtyard. Looking out onto the courtyard from within also fosters a sense of connection to the history of Heritage State Park, harkening back to the time when North Adams was a bustling railroad hub, when trains rolled through the yard frequently and there was a constant buzz of merchants and carters in the dusty courtyard.

The new addition will be 41 feet high, and the overall structure will be an astonishing 670 feet long. More than two football fields long, this cathedral-like space is dominated at one end by a precision scale installation of urban architecture, including models of the Empire State Building towering 34 feet above the floor, and the 39-foot-tall Freedom Tower. One hundred precision-scale model locomotives will run on eight miles of track.

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The architectural coup de grace is a 440-foot wall with 22-foot industrial overhead garage doors. The exterior of the wall of the museum will run parallel to the freight line between Troy and Boston 15 feet away. When an actual freight train approaches, the overhead doors will open and the real train will virtually fill the interior space as it passes.

The vision inspiring this sophisticated project can be traced to the conceptual and theoretical evolution of the modern role and function of art in society, which began in Germany at the end of the 18th century. In his influential "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man" (1794), Friedrich Schiller argued that for art to matter, it must be living. The challenge for the artist is to transform the world into a work of art.

This idea became the foundation of the modern avant-garde. For avant-garde artists, art must have a significant, social, political, and economic impact. This vision guided artists who participated in the Russian Revolution, helped to rebuild Europe through the work of the Bauhaus, and, like Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the original Guggenheim building, developed utopian visions intended to facilitate spiritual renewal and guide social reform.

The two avant-garde artists who have been most important for Mr. Krens are Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. Beuys taught him that to be socially and politically effective, art must become "social sculpture," and Warhol taught him that business and art, economics and aesthetics are complementary, or in Warhol's own words, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art." Warhol even more famously demonstrated that so-called high art is inseparable from popular culture. These lessons could not be more timely.

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'Social sculpture'

In spite of the success of Mass MoCA, the population of North Adams continues to decline, and the economy has not improved as much as had been hoped. Mr. Krens' vision and the enthusiasm of North Adams citizens, as well as of Governors Dukakis and Weld, creates an unusual opportunity to develop a project whose economic and social impact holds the promise of reversing this grim situation.

For three decades, Thomas Krens has been creating a "social sculpture" that consists of global network of museums, which brings together high culture, popular culture, business, and an insistent sense of societal benefit in a seamless orchestration, without sacrificing a unique and rigorous aesthetic sense.

When Mr. Krens's plan becomes a reality, Northern Berkshire County will not only enjoy an extraordinary economic revival, but we will all be living in the midst of a masterful art that will revitalize our community. Perhaps the most unexpected chapter in Mr. Krens's remarkable story is the new proposal for North Adams.

Mark Taylor is a professor of religion at Columbia University in New York, and the co-curator of "Sensing Place," which will open at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown on July 4.


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