Through light and sound, Mass MoCA installation will use steeples to reinvigorate downtown North Adams


NORTH ADAMS — Searching for late-night entertainment in North Adams this summer?

Look up.

The city's steeples will be illuminated and chatter poetry in Morse code — just one facet of an all-out effort to highlight the downtown in relationship to Mass MoCA.

The artwork is part of the new North Adams Exchange, a project launched by Mass MoCA and the city of North Adams, to encourage more activity downtown during the museum's hectic summer season that includes the near-doubling of its gallery space with the opening of Building 6 and an enormous slate of performing arts.

The concept was inspired by Karen Hopkins, the former president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson recalled Hopkins telling him that "there's going to be this other moment coming this summer where the world's going to be looking at Mass MoCA" — referring to the completion of Mass MoCA's third and final stage.

Thompson continued, "She said, `That's your moment to lead people to North Adams and show them what's going on in the town.'"

It inspired Mass MoCA to link programming in a direct way with the city's downtown.

"We have been given a golden opportunity to intentionally create a corridor and engagement [with] downtown during our busiest months of the year," said Benjamin Lamb, the City Council president and an organizer behind the Exchange. "This hearkens back directly to the original point that MoCA was to become an economic driver for North Adams."

The museum raised $250,000 to fund the programming, which is informally divided into three components: light, sound and retail.


Luftwerk is a Chicago-based collaborative that have been activating architecture with light for more than a decade.

This summer, it will be illuminating the iconic Mass MoCA clocktower and four of the city's steeples in a nightly show called "cloudland," a title that references the 19th-century poem written by Henry David Thoreau who was inspired after he awoke above the clouds atop Mount Greylock.

The steeples will speak to each other and to the beacon on Mount Greylock, where stanzas of Thoreau's poem are inscribed on a large rock atop the summit, said Larry Smallwood, Mass MoCA's deputy director.

The steeples' lights will flash in Morse code to repeat the text of the poem.

"It's beautiful. It's moments of synchronicity and moments of isolation on a cycle," Smallwood said.

It will run from dusk to 11 p.m. every night on a roughly 20-minute cycle.

The timing of the project — just a year after the city's oldest Catholic church, St. Francis of Assisi, was demolished — is not a coincidence.

"We lost one of the central landmarks, and that was a gut punch and a little bit of a wake-up call as to how valuable those steeples are not only to the churches, but as architectural landmarks. They are the skyline of North Adams, but they're more than that," Thompson said.


There are currently six works of sound art facilitated by Mass MoCA — including under the Route 2 overpass adjacent to the museum campus and another at Natural Bridge State Park that plays every night at astronomical sunset — so as part of the North Adams Exchange, two more will be added downtown.

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The concept formed to provide a guide map for all of the museum's sound art, several of which are outside of its campus.

"So if you want to see the show, or hear the show, you have to walk under that overpass. You have to venture out," Thompson said.

One new artwork in the Leu Building parking lot on Marshall Street will be by New Orleans Airlift, and will be contained in what is essentially a shed on stilts.

"You walk into it and there's ropes and wheels and levers," Thompson said. "You can get in there and play and ring, and it's a big percussive instrument, basically."

A second solar-powered sound artwork, Sun Boxes by Craig Colorusso, will be installed at Colegrove Park on North Church Street.

"It's beautiful and it turns into an orchestration of speakers, 18 or 20 units, but they're all driven by the sun," Smallwood said. "It will morph over the course of the day as the sun changes."

The museum hopes that the steeple artwork encourages museum visitors to stay in North Adams after it closes, grab dinner, and stay for the show.

"Stick around a little longer," Thompson said.


Several downtown locations have been identified to add retail and pop-up programming this summer — 87 Main St., the Leu Building parking lot, Colegrove Park, and the former Sleepy's mattress store.

The parking lot of the Leu Building, which is owned by Mass MoCA, is at the corner of Marshall and Main streets and will see a mix of food trucks and retail. The museum plans to install three tents and a sound artwork at that corner, provide lighting and water, and turn it over to local businesses.

"It's essentially whatever they want to put in there. Hopefully it's stuff that will attract people," Thompson said.

The fence that currently encompasses the southern border of Mass MoCA's campus will be removed to encourage more foot traffic toward the downtown, and the area will receive some beautification.

"Essentially make the walk more pleasant and attractive from the parking lot to the downtown," Thompson said.

The former Sleepy's will be geared toward relaxation with open hours every Friday through Sunday, free of charge.

"Sleepy's is such a huge empty space that it's a good one to have filled for the summer. It's going to a very low key. Play foosball, take out a chess set, or read a book," said Suzy Helme, the city's director of community events.

At Colegrove Park, there will be a free concert held on the first Saturday of every summer month from 2 to 5 p.m. The series begins on June 10.

Each Thursday on which there is DownStreet Art, there will be a movie in the park, and North Adams Yoga will hold free classes there every Sunday.

The vacant space at 87 Main St. will be occupied by a number of local retailers throughout the summer.

Lamb said there's still more of North Adams to be discovered by visitors and locals.

"Increased foot traffic, creative ways of using empty spaces, and increased business for our existing downtown restaurants and retail are the ultimate goals," Lamb said.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter.


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