Mass MoCA turns 10

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But the founders of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art have exhibited a business sense that complements their artistic aptitude.

Now as the museum prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary this weekend, Mass MoCA has 14 commercial tenants that occupy 80,000 of the 100,000 square feet set aside for development at the sprawling former Sprague Electric Co. campus.

The tenants include two well-established North County law firms, a publishing company, an accounting firm, and restaurants. Even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts got into the act.

On Valentine's Day 2005, Northern Berkshire District Court officially moved from City Hall to Sprague's former research facility, which is located across the street from the main 28-building, 13.5-acre Marshall Street complex.

According to Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson, revenue from commercial tenants accounts for roughly $1.4 million of the musuem's $5.5 million budget — a sizable chunk of revenue that helps propel the museum.

In the original scheme, it wasn't supposed to work this way.

"We didn't think commercial development would occur to this level," Thompson said. "It was always a mixed-use development. But it turned out to be a more successful part of our portfolio, if you will, than what we had anticipated."

According to Thompson, one of Mass MoCA's founders, the founding group foresaw building a hotel within the complex — but not much beyond that.

The turning point, Thompson said, came when Mass MoCA realized that the revenue from the commercial sector could offset the museum's lack of an endowment.

"Necessity was the mother of invention," Thompson said. "We had no lines of credit to operate. We were a start-up of a museum, and that's not a good idea without endowment support. I quickly realized that the only thing we had that was like an endowment was our buildings. We had to get as many revenue-operating buildings on line as possible.

"We ramped up from zero income in 1996 to $1.4 million," Thompson said. "Had we not done that, we would have been out of business as a museum."

The commercial side hasn't been without its pitfalls. In January 2005, Mass MoCA filed lawsuits in Berkshire Superior Court seeking a combined total of $259,000 in back rent and other payments from two companies that were the complex's fourth and fifth largest tenants at the time.

One of those firms, Eziba.com, went out of business. Mass MoCA settled with Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co., a special effects company, Thompson said. Kleiser-Walczak, one of Mass MoCA's first tenants, is still located at the complex, but has a much smaller presence. Other tenants have come and gone, Thompson said, but Mass MoCA has not been involved in any similar legal actions.

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Commercial real estate, and income from the performing and visual arts exhibitions, are Mass MoCA's three revenue streams, Thompson said. The nonprofit museum has 58 full-time employees during the winter months, and 68 the rest of the year. They receive help from 20 interns.

According to Thompson, the entire complex has more than doubled its footprint over the last 10 years, from 210,000 square feet to 430,000 square feet.

There is still 180,000 square feet of real estate waiting to be developed, Thompson said.

"I think that some of that could be used for commercial," Thompson said, "but I think a viable commercial footprint for Mass MoCA in North Adams right now is probably 120,000 or 130,000 square feet of which 80 to 90 percent is occupied at one time. I don't see a huger increment of growth possible there."

Mass MoCA relied heavily on annual giving and philanthropy when it began. The museum didn't have an endowment from which to draw, and it was bound to bridging a $2.5 million annual budget gap, the difference between annual income and expenses, when it opened. That deficit dropped to around $1 million three years ago, and is now about $150,000 after a board member stepped in to help out, Thompson said.

"It was dicey three or four years ago," Thompson said. "We were hanging on for dear life. We were collecting rent, but we were always short. Every month, we were short. The donor took that on and raised $1 million in cash for our endowment. It was really a regimented all-hands-on-deck effort. Massive work by the board. Massive work by our development office here.

"We started with nothing three years ago, and I believe we have $14 million either pledged or committed of which $7 million is in the bank right now," he said.

Outside its borders, Mass MoCA has impacted the overall economy in North Adams.

Mayor John Barrett III, chairman of the Mass MoCA Commission, the body that owns the former Sprague complex on the city's behalf, said a number of commercial enterprises have come to the city since Mass MoCA opened 10 years ago, including a downtown cinema complex with eight movie theaters.

"I look at what's going on in Pittsfield," Barrett said, referring to the Beacon Cinemas project on North Street. "They had to put together a consortium of financial institutions to get the cinema going. We didn't have to do that. It's all private investment."

When Mass MoCA began, Barrett said, "I wouldn't cross the street to see contemporary art."

He doesn't deny making that statement.

"It wasn't art to me," he said. "I'm a Norman Rockwell kind of guy. But there is a world out there that will cross the street to see it.

"I also did it to say to the blue-collar constituency that 'I'm one of you,'" Barrett said. "This isn't my cup of tea. But this was about economic development. This was about the engine that would drive the economy. I don't deny it, and I'd say it again today."


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