NORTH ADAMS, Mass. There are few museums in the world with enough space to exhibit a giant musical instrument made of 13 inflatable bags, each the size of a school bus. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is one of them, and it is enormous: 400,000 square feet total, with 150,000 square feet of gallery space.
MASS MoCA, as its known, is located in an old electric factory compound. Its doors opened 10 year ago this summer in North Adams, a working-class town in the Berkshires.
Standing in MASS MoCA’s exposed brick lobby, you can sense the ghost of North Adams’ industrial past. The pretty, but gritty former mill town is off-the-beaten-path, in the northwestern corner of the state, hours from any major metropolitan area.
Museum Director Joseph Thompson says the location raised eyebrows from the beginning. “It was an absurd idea to build a very large institution devoted to contemporary art in North Adams,” he says. “It was not the most likely of places for this.”
It was unlikely because the town was reeling after the Sprague Electric Company closed in 1985. Thousands of jobs disappeared, devastating the town. The contemporary art museum offered a promise to revitalize North Adams.
State Rep. Daniel Bosley, of North Adams, got behind it by shepherding unprecedented legislation that would direct $35 million toward the project. “Take out the word museum, and just run the numbers on the number of visitors and the amount of money it generated,” Bosley says. “It worked.”
One study measuring MASS MoCA’s economic impact found an increase in the number of jobs since it opened, along with higher property values and tax revenue. It’s pumping $14 million a year into area hotels, restaurants and shops. After a decade of operating in the red, Director Joe Thompson says MASS MoCA is seeing more than 110,000 visitors annually, and the museum is finally making money.
On a rainy Thursday, Susan Weisend drove four and a half hours to MASS MoCA from Ithaca, N.Y. She says she likes the idea that it is in an old factory. “It’s very easy to see art here,” she says. “I love to go to Manhattan to see art also, but it’s a little more challenging with a place to stay, parking, all that sort of thing.” Weisend visits several times a year and stays and eats locally when she makes the trip.
Michael Supranowitcz, President and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, says visitors like Weisend have helped transform downtown North Adams. “It was very, very bad up here before MoCA moved in. Now, he admits, “Yes, everything is not successful,” but, “what’s great is, when one restaurant fails, someone else is in their spot within a year.”
Supranowitcz says MASS MoCA is living up to his expectations, but small business owner Vinny Patel doesn’t agree. “I’m expecting more, put it that way,” he says as a customer leaves his Corner Market convenience store, which is walking distance from the museum.
Patel questions MASS MoCA’s impact, saying, “It’s just same routine life, I still see my regular customers here. It has to grow, it’s just not enough for the town.”
Patel is not alone in his thinking. In fact, what has been called the “MASS MoCA effect” has fueled a political debate between the current mayor of North Adams and his opponent. The mayor holds it up as a success story while his adversary warns the town should not put all its eggs in the MASS MoCA basket.
Some of state Rep. Daniel Bosley’s constituents question whether an art museum was the best choice for North Adams. He says they ask, “why we aren’t putting manufacturing in those buildings, why are we putting art in those buildings?” But Bosley points to the job base, the traffic that has generated and the overall buzz for North Adams.
MASS MoCA’s edgy exhibitions are written about and reviewed in publications all over the world. Many people say it’s hard to quantify the true value of MASS MoCA’s reputation. For 33-year-old Jodi Joseph, retail manager at the museum, it manifests as pride and a job in her home town, which she never thought she would have.
Joseph admits she spent a lot of her life apologizing for coming from North Adams, but now has “tons of North Adams pride,” she says. “I’m sort of embarrassed about my prior embarrassment. But the city took a long time to escape its lesser reputation and sort of begin to flap it’s wings again, so I’m very happy to be here and to be a part of that.”
And Joseph says if MASS MoCA wasn’t here, she would have left town a long time ago.
This is the first of two reports on the financial and cultural impact of MASS MoCA in the last decade. Click here to listen to the second.