Update: $25.4M state grant to fuel Mass MoCA's final phase, doubling gallery space


Photo Gallery: Mass MoCA's Building 6

NORTH ADAMS - With a $25.4 million state grant within reach, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has announced it will begin the final stage of its decades-long construction, doubling gallery space by 2016.

The state House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation that includes a the grant that will help complete the $55 million project. The bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate in the coming days.

Beginning this year and ending by 2016, Mass MoCA anticipates the addition of 130,000 square feet of gallery space, upgraded public safety measures and utilities, and improved courtyard access and outdoor performing venues. The last stage will essentially complete Mass MoCA's renovation, which began in 1996, amounting to a 600,000-square-foot, 16 acre campus.

The additional renovated space will be used mostly for long-term installations - similar to the Sol LeWitt works on display until 2033, according to Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson. Beyond adding to the gallery space, Thompson said, "it will also activate the network of exterior courtyard, walkways, and performing arts venues," Thompson said. "It might feel bigger than doubling."

Phase three of the museum's development will focus mostly on Building Six, which sits on the western side of the campus adjacent to the Hoosic River. Thompson envisions the permanent installations in the renovated building being the "proton" around which changing shows will rotate, continually offering visitors a reason to come back.

In total, about 30,000 square feet of courtyard is slated for renovation, according to the release. Notably, the museum aims to remodel its West Main Street entrance in an effort to improve its accessibility from the city's downtown area and, in the future, the Greylock Market, which is currently Western Gateway Heritage State Park.

Blair Benjamin, the president of the Greylock Market project, which aims to privatize the state and city-owned land, said he was thrilled that Mass MoCA was poised to receive the grant.

"I put it up on our Facebook page as soon as I heard about it," Benjamin said.

Specifically, Benjamin said, plans to invigorate the West Main Street entrance will improve accessibility between the Greylock Market and Mass MoCA and make the city more pedestrian-friendly.

"Once you can create that pedestrian and bike experience," he said, "then we have really expanded the visitor experience."

The two-year construction timeframe is realistic, Thompson said, largely because the renovation is simple.

"A lot of this work is basic infrastructure work - it's adding water supply, electrical supply, it's site accessibility improvements," Thompson said. "It's renovation and rehab work."

Building 6, when renovated, also will complete a circular walking loop of the museum's buildings. Instead of heading out through the campus' "spine," Thompson said, visitors will be able to make their way around the museum and never see the same art twice.

Phase three, when completed, will leave the museum with only one, smaller building to renovate, according to Thompson.

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In an effort to continue the growth and quality of its music festivals - Solid Sound and FreshGrass - the museum will bring water, bathrooms, and other amenities to the campus courtyards. The upgrades also will make the campus more approachable and accessible to the public - free of charge, Thompson said.

The museum will use $30 million in private funding, including from its endowment, on top of the state's $25.4 million grant to fund phase three.

"With over 120,000 square feet of interior space still to be renovated, the ambitious endeavor will require a substantial investment in basic infrastructure - civil engineering, heating and cooling plant capacity, earthquake and fire code compliance work, accessibility enhancements, and basic structural repair," Mass MoCA board Chairman Hans Morris said in a statement.

The museum's renovation is an easy pitch, Thomspon said, because it's more cost efficient than other urban museums, where the cost is several times more per square foot.

"Anywhere that we can economize by showing off the texture and vitality of these historic mill buildings, we do," Thompson said. "We consider that to be an asset, it's what makes Mass MoCA, Mass MoCA."

Due to the scale of the infrastructure - and funds required to maintain it - Thompson said about $18 million of the $30 million in private funding will stay in a capital reserve fund for building maintenance.

The museum pegs the economic impact of the additional space at more than $11 million per year, including $160,000 in state and local tax revenues, a boost of more than 50 percent over its current $20 million annual impact, according to the release.

In years past, Thompson said, a visitor from the region could see the Clark Art Institute and Mass MoCA in a day. But with the Clark expanding this summer and MoCA expected to expand in 2016, Thomspon said such tourists would have more reason to stay overnight - the key to significant economic impact, he added.

"It's an amazing situation, and this will only enhance it," said Clark Art Institute Director Michael Conforti.

Conforti said that although the two museums attract different audiences - the Clark features more traditional art and specializes in Impressionist paintings - visitors will often see both museums.

"Whatever drives the core attendance, it's positive for the north Berkshires," Conforti said. "It certainly is unique in a rural setting to have three unusually powerful and recognized institutions."

Mayor Richard Alcombright echoed Thompson's thoughts on the expansion's impact on tourism.

"It's great news. If you look at North Adams as Disneyland, [Mass MoCA] is certainly the main attraction, the main ride," Alcombright said. "We truly have become a mecca for arts and culture in the Northeast."

Mass MoCA, which opened in 1999 on the site of the former Sprague Electric Co., will celebrate its 15th anniversary this spring. It expects an additional 65,000 visitors annually when the project is completed. When it opened in 1999 the museum had about 200,000 square feet of gallery and other interior space.

"We've doubled our used footprint," Thompson said.

To reach Adam Shanks: ashanks@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 663-3741, ext. 225. On Twitter: @EagleAdamShanks


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