What happens when contemporary art becomes too big for museums? Some of it, of course, moves outside. The curtain, umbrellas, and assorted gift wraps of Christo come to mind. Or maybe everyone's favorite floral canine at center stage in Rockefeller Center. But what if it's merely BIG as opposed to ENORMOUS? I mean, the MoMA isn't exactly a broom closet, but neither is it big enough for a 22-foot tall bronze triangle weighing 3,000 pounds, entitled "Lightning with a Stag in its Glare" to hang from its ceiling. Or how about maple trees growing upside down? Some of this art only works inside where it's size can be juxtaposed to the scale of an interior space. Clearly, a new type of art museum is called for.
In the 1970s and early 80s, North Adams, Massachusetts was a bustling mill town of 18,000 nestled in the Berkshire Mountains. Then it's major employer, an electronics firm, went out of business, laying off 4,137 workers. The unemployment rate soared toward thirty percent. Seventy percent of it's storefronts were empty, the hotel went bankrupt (for the third time), and the running joke was that the whole valley in which the town is nestled should be flooded to create lakefront property. That was fourteen years ago. Today, the situation is largely reversed. Over two-thirds of North Adams' commercial footage is occupied, a gourmet restaurant flourishes, whole neighborhoods of pristine Victorian houses have been turned into Bed & Breakfast Inns. And the key to this recovery lies in the very deserted factory that had once made triggers for nuclear weapons, and nearly triggered the town's demise. Now, $35-million later, 105,000 visitors last year trooped through the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) while another 25,000 attended performing arts presentations in the same, reinvigorated, factory complex.
Anything this big with a gestation period of fourteen years has to have a colorful and troubled pedigree. MASS MoCA's resembles a roller coaster. First conceived in the mind of Thomas Krens of nearby Williams College as he contemplated traditional expansion of the college's museum of art, gradually, the concept grew to fill the economic and physical vacuum Sprague Electronics left when it closed it's doors in 1985. MASS MoCA also owes its existence to a trend in Postmodern art toward a scale far outstripping traditional display spaces. Often artists were reduced to merely drawing PLANS for their creations for lack of adequate interior spaces in which to display their work.
Support first came from the state...and left just as quickly as political winds shifted. Sponsors too came and went...as did leadership and local enthusiasm for the project in the traditionally conservative mill town. The mayor, an early supporter, reported becoming "MoCAed out." At one low point, the press labeled the whole enterprise a costly boondoggle and they were nearly hooted out of town. But eventually the economics fell into place. What had once been a textile plant, then a facility manufacturing components for NASA's trips to the moon, found new life as a museum boasting the wide open interior spaces demanded by Postmodern artists for their work.
Even so, townspeople, while praising the economic miracle the museum has brought to their previously dying town, aren't quite sure what to make of some of the museum's artwork. Minimalist works sprawl over hundreds of square feet. The cryptic words, "That's interesting," are heard from passing viewers. Some cock their heads in wonder, others stifle laughter...some don't. But that's the way Postmodern art should be...interesting, mystifying, awesome, amusing, even hysterical at times. Every sleepy little town in American should have a MoCA.