Shades of Gray: Public murals painted over as Mass MoCA restores sound installation

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NORTH ADAMS — The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is trying to mend fences with the creators of a public art display beneath the Route 2 overpass that it recently painted over.

The museum recently covered up the colorful artworks that were created by Greylock Elementary School students in the summers of 2012 and 2013. But those paintings were done on concrete columns beneath the overpass, which itself was part of a Mass MoCA work dating back to 1998.

Both the museum and organizers of the student art project say they had permission from the city to paint the columns.

Regardless, museum Director Joseph Thompson said he regrets how he handled the situation.

"I did a terrible job reaching out [to] people who had every right to know," he said Friday.

The student paintings along the eastern side of Marshall Street depicted the dolls produced by the former Arnold Print Works facility, the mill that later became Mass MoCA. Along the western side, paintings installed a year later depicted children who worked in the mills. Both sides were covered in gray paint last month.

The columns, the museum argues, were meant to be a specific shade of gray as part of Harmonic Bridge, a long-term work of sound art commissioned by the museum and installed in 1998. It transforms the sounds of urban existence above into noise below.

"Any sound that happens to be in the pitch of C, at whatever octave, gets collected and piped down through and played on two speakers that are located below the overpass," Thompson said.

News of the paintings' removal spread on local Facebook pages and resulted in sharp criticism of the museum.

Christina King, the Greylock Elementary School art teacher who spearheaded the project with the students of an after-school program, said she learned the columns had been repainted only when she drove past.

"We knew the sound installation was there, and obviously that was an art piece, but we had no idea there was a visual connection on the columns," King said. "We wouldn't have spent two years under the bridge volunteering" had they known the space was disputed.

Thompson said he notified Phil and Gail Sellers of Art About Town, which supported the mill children project, about his intentions prior to painting over the artwork. But, he said he should not have assumed the Sellers' would in turn notify the artists.

He said he was unaware of the mill children paintings until they were already underway, he said, and he did not raise the issue at the time because he did not want to stymie the efforts of everyone behind the project.

However, he said, he did not expect the paintings to be long-term works of art.

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The decision to restore the columns to their original gray came in connection with this summer's launch of North Adams Exchange, a partnership between the museum and the city aimed at directing museum visitors into the city's downtown. It includes several new works of sound art.

"It just seemed like the time," Thompson said.

And while he acknowledged the "depth of feelings" associated with the removal of artwork, Thompson said he also sympathized with Harmonic Bridge artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, whose initial work had been altered.

Knowing that the museum had initially received permission for the Harmonic Bridge installation does "take the sting away a little bit," King said. Still, she took issue with the lack of communication between the museum and mill children organizers.

King also pointed out that the mill children were connected with the museum's own history and that of the city.

Thompson said he is in the process of reaching out to the people involved in the mill children project.

"I wish I would have done it two weeks ago," Thompson said. "I mistakenly thought I had covered my bases."

The city's Public Arts Commission was created in part to avoid conflicts like this, but it did not yet exist when these projects were approved. Previously, public art proposals were handled by the mayor's office.

Commission Chairwoman Julia Dixon said the museum still should have sought the board's approval prior to removing public art.

"It's a complicated situation," she said, "but what I know is because the columns are city property, Mass MoCA should have come to the public arts commission and they did not."

The maintenance and treatment of any work of public art should depend on the contract signed when it was installed, Dixon said.

"I've heard from a lot of residents; they're upset and they're frustrated by what happened, which is a good thing that they're expressing interest and passion for art in the city," Dixon said. "It's nice to see that these art pieces mean so much to the people that live here."

The public response, King said, "has been heartwarming."

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter.


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