As MASS MoCA Doubles Its Size, Unpredictability Is A Goal

May 25, 2017

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams was already one of the largest contemporary art museums in the country — before a huge expansion opening this weekend.

The renovation of two existing buildings on the museum’s campus — and installation of enough art to fill the new space — took a year and a half and cost about $50 million.

The museum in downtown North Adams occupies a series of disused factory buildings. They were once home to a textile mill called Arnold Print Works.

MASS MoCA's expansion opens May 28, 2017.
Credit Jeremy Goodwin / NEPR

If you already thought MASS MoCA’s 130,000 square feet of gallery space was a lot, you were right. So picture this: that square footage doubles on Sunday when the museum unveils its latest renovation — a three-story building that was once the print works’ dye house.

“We are in the very nose end of Building 6, the far end of MASS MoCA’s campus," explains Denise Markonish, curator. "It’s a double-height space with almost a full two-story window looking out at the area where the two branches of the Hoosac River re-converge.”

So with so much new gallery space, how do you fill it all?

"That’s always the loaded question," she replied, with a big laugh.

One answer is to reconfigure the space to fit groups of works by single artists, on long-term loan.

The warehouse floor plan started as a large grid, with rows of 60 columns apiece. Now all that raw space has been sculpted into different shapes. There are long, open expanses flooded with natural light -- and tightly cloistered galleries where you might forget you’re on a former factory floor.

Robert Rauschenberg's "A Quake in Paradise (Labyrinth)" seen through the jaws of his work, "The Lurid Attack of the Monsters from the Postal News Aug 1875," ahead of the building's opening at MASS MoCA.
Credit Robin Lubbock / WBUR

A chunk taken out of the ceiling makes room for a large-scale sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Near that is a maze-like series of printed panels by Robert Rauschenberg.

And then there are the musical instruments. They're almost comically oversized — built by the late Bennington College professor Gunnar Schonbeck.

Musician Mark Stewart curated the Schonbeck exhibit. He says the message to museum-goers is — please touch the art.

“This is a single-stringed fiddle," Stewart said, as he demonstrated. "He made a whole family of these different sizes, and they’re actually played with a stick.”

Stewart said visitors to this gallery are invited to make some noise, regardless of musical training.

“People immerse themselves in sound and in improvisation, because that’s really all that’s going on in there. You cannot play ‘Melancholy Baby’ or Beethoven’s 7th Symphony," he said. "You can find what you are invested in, you can delight yourself and you can delight your neighbor or you can delight your family.”

At MASS MoCA, musician Mark Stewart plays a 9-foot banjo created by Gunnar Schonbeck.
Credit Robin Lubbock / WBUR

That immersive spirit carries over to a virtual reality installation by multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. And light sculptor James Turrell created an otherworldly, white room. Visitors can walk into it and get enveloped in a disorienting bath of LED light.

That piece is so immersive it requires a safety disclaimer when museum director Joe Thompson recently led a preview tour. 

The sort of gradual, steady re-inhabitation of this site has been immensely satisfying, but it's also been unpredictable. - MASS MoCA's Joe Thompson

"If any of you are photo-sensitive to stroboscopic effect, now would be a time to leave," he said. "When it happens it’s quite powerful. You can literally see the back of your eye, you’ll see the vein structure and the rods and cones on the back of your eye because of the intensity.”

Such warnings were not necessary back in 1999 when MASS MoCA first opened on a portion of its current footprint.

“When we began, MASS MoCA its was simple," Thompson said. "It was going to be large spaces for large works of art that sat there. A depot."

The museum’s growth since then includes renovation of adjacent space it rents out to about 30 businesses, and development of performing arts events like its own annual bluegrass festival -- and a music festival curated by the rock band Wilco, which returns in June.

“The sort of gradual, steady re-inhabitation of this site has been immensely satisfying, but it’s also been unpredictable," he said.

Unpredictability is not the first quality that large art institutions look for. But for this museum on this post-industrial site, it might be just the thing that makes it all work.