Mass MoCA director staying the course


Sunday, May 24

Just when Joe Thompson could start thinking of job horizons beyond Mass MoCA, he woke up to find he was 50, an age that heralds invitations to join the AARP.

Not that he's contemplating retirement — or moving on for that matter. But as the museum this weekend marks the 10th anniversary of its public opening, Thompson, who was 29 when he took on the directorship in 1988, said that he stayed as long as he has because each advance in launching the project, carried with it a setback, and for him, a responsibility to see things through.

"You work five or 10 years and don't want to see it fall apart," he said in an interview in MoCA's fourth floor conference room recently. "It was very fragile."

Now, with a changing arts and exhibition program, a much-lauded installation of work by the iconic conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, and the makings of a serious endowment, he said, the place finally "has legs under it."

Beyond that, he said his love of contemporary art, his staff of "miracle workers," the chance to rehab old buildings, and the opportunity to live in the Berkshires have been powerful reasons to stay.

"I get job offers all the time," he went on, "but just going and working at another museum is something I can't see myself doing."

What would become Mass MoCA was just a modest quest for art space, when Thompson's mentor, Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art, sent a development team scouting North Adams in 1985 for places in which gritty, alternative-art installations could be constructed.

WCMA was finding, Thompson said, that its Williams campus quarters, newly renovated to designs by celebrity architect Charles Moore, were too pristine and polished for the rough-and-tumble installations some contemporary artists wanted to create.

Thompson had studied under Krens at Williams, went on to earn masters degrees in art history and in business, then was hired by his mentor in 1982 to install exhibitions at WCMA.

About that same time, North Adams Mayor John Barrett III and other city businesses leaders were emerging from a task force organized by then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to re-imagine a future for the city after the closing of its largest employer, Sprague Electric Co.

It was the confluence of those two events: WCMA needing space and North Adams needing to "reanimate the Sprague site," Thompson said, that was the genesis of Mass MoCA in 1986-87.

The idea that WCMA and city officials came up with was to acquire the Sprague property and use it as a local $15 million match for $35 million in state funding to create the biggest contemporary art museum in the world. It would house mammoth artworks from the '60s and '70s by minimalist artists like Richard Serra, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd that were too big to be exhibited elsewhere. And it would bring 600 new jobs to the area. Total cost was put at $72 million.

Just as things were getting off the ground, however, Krens got an offer he couldn't refuse: the directorship of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

"We talked it over among ourselves," Thompson said, referring to himself, Krens and another Krens protégé, Michael Govan, a Williams graduate who was also working as an aide at WCMA.

Govan later became head of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which created a rival to MoCA in Beacon in 2006. He now heads the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"I was a little older than Michael and had two to three years of museum experience." Thompson recalled. "So we decided that Michael would go and help Tom (at the Guggenheim) and I would stay here."

Krens continued to play a public role as MoCA's visionary from his new perch in New York.

"We could see it was going to be tough," Thompson said. "It was a vast undertaking. We didn't have control of the land. We had no art and we didn't have any money. It was a long shot."

Yet the Dukakis administration bought the idea of the museum as an economic revitalization engine for North Adams, and in March 1988, the state Legislature authorized a $35 million bond issue, with $1.7 million earmarked for feasibility studies before the money would be released.

Offices were set up at the empty Sprague mill in late summer 1988 and the technical studies got under way.

Then, Thompson said, "All hell broke loose."

The technology bubble that had lifted the Massachusetts economy in the 1980s, began to fizzle, taking with it a hefty source of state tax revenue.

Dukakis, who had championed the MoCA project, was humiliatingly defeated that November in his presidential bid against George H.W. Bush.

"The state's economy was upside down," Thompson said. "All capital projects like MoCA came under intense scrutiny."

He remembered more than 1,650 newspaper editorials at the time, The Eagle's among them, opposing any kind of public subsidy for contemporary art when the state was hemorrhaging cash.

Trying to get the MoCA feasibility study considered, much less approved, was a challenge.

"A lot of (Dukakis's) key staff and cabinet had left," Thompson said. "The government was in tatters."

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In 1990, Dukakis said he would not run for governor again.

William Weld, the Republican who succeeded Dukakis on a slash-spending platform, made it clear when he took office in January 1991 that he was no friend to Mass MoCA. Weld vowed, Thompson recalled, that the state would release money for contemporary art in North Adams "over his dead body."

Thompson, who had been drawing a $52,000 salary from the original state feasibility grant (he now earns three times that), saw his own paycheck disappear once the feasibility study was completed. He took on freelance jobs — one of them helping Krens plan the new Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, Spain — and stayed at his MoCA post.

Right off, Weld considered the vacant Sprague complex overvalued as a local match at $15 million. He wanted to see real money.

In response, a dozen community leaders mounted a private fund drive in early 1991 to demonstrate local support. The goal was a modest $500,000. Within six months, they took in $1 million in pledges.

Weld scoffed at the amount. "It was not adult money," Thompson recalled him saying. But the number of people who had pledged — 650 — gave the governor pause. That showed real grassroots backing

While he remained publicly skeptical, Thompson said, privately, Weld began to warm to the idea.

He challenged the museum to raise $2 million. Then $4 million. Then he was willing to accept a $3 million appraisal of the buildings as the local match. Once the museum raised $8 million by 1996, Weld agreed to release $18 million in state money.

Ultimately, Thompson said, MoCA raised $20 million privately and got the remaining $17 million in state funding by 2005.

He credits part of Weld's accommodation to then-state Sen. Jane Swift of North Adams, one of only nine Republicans in that chamber at the time. Weld needed nine votes in the Senate to sustain his vetoes on spending, "so he needed Jane's vote," Thompson said. "And she used that leverage" to MoCA's advantage..

Swift became governor in 2001.

Another pivotal development took shape as Thompson was hustling the art world for money in the early 1990s. Art experts were telling him that the original vision of Mass MoCA as a "depot for art," a place for the long-term showing of big installations, was not going to fly. To keep people coming back, the museum would need changing exhibitions as well.

In 1993, Sam Miller, the executive director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket at the time, brought Thompson that same message — and a proposal.

The performing arts too needed time, space, and a place to show new work, Miller argued. Why not collaborate at Mass MoCA?

Thompson began to adjust his thinking and over the next two years, the master plan was revised, adding stages and artist housing, and staff to accommodate the performing arts.

"If we'd built Mass MoCA (on the original model) I'm certain we would have closed before our fifth anniversary," Thompson said. "Incorporating the performing arts and expanding art to changing exhibitions are the reasons we're here today."

But even with things falling into place and a public opening in 1999, Thompson said he "knew the hard part was still to come" — raising money to keep everything going.

"The first five years we were relying on rabbits out of a hat to meet the $5.5 million operating budget," he said. "We had no cash, no lines of credit, no endowment. We were living each week on what we could pull in. You cannot run a museum like that."

Then, opportunity knocked. Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, approached Thompson in 2003 with a proposal to house a long-term installation of wall drawings by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt at Mass MoCA. Yale held many of the plans for LeWitt's work and the artist, who was still alive at the time (he died in 2008), was willing to design the installation himself.

The project ignited MoCA's board of trustees and they launched a fund drive with Yale that raised $10 million to support the LeWitt project. On top of that, they pulled in $14 million in pledges toward a permanent endowment, $7 million of which is already in the bank.

"LeWitt has done marvelous things for attendance," Thompson said. "It's changed psychology of Mass MoCA."

"The mix of what we do here is rare," he went on. "There are not many who take on the whole wa-terfront like we do. And none of them are coupled with (a mission to support) the economic well-being of its home community."

Over the last 10 years, he said, the total developed footprint (art and commercial space) of Mass MoCA has doubled from 220,000 to 440,000 square feet, most of it new commercial space.

Of the 180,000 square feet of vacant space remaining, he would like to see about 40,000 square feet of it in commercial use and the rest given over to art.

Just last month, Thompson announced MoCA would seek $3.3 million in federal stimulus money to help fund a 500-megawatt array of solar panels on the 28 rooftops in 16-acre campus and launch a center for the study of emerging solar technology.

And, oh yes. He would be very happy with a $50 million endowment in the bank.

But that presents yet another challenge.

To reach Charles Bonenti: (413) 496-6211


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