hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2024


The museum that transformed a city

Mass MoCA, now 25, gave rise to North Adams’ new creative economy



Contributing writer


When Tom Bernard worked at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art 20 years ago, he wore his grandmother’s badge from Sprague Electric Co. clipped to his own.

She worked in Sprague’s sprawling mill complex in the center of North Adams from the 1920s to the 1980s. And when Sprague closed and left the city without an economic engine, some imagined the museum, housed in the mill’s 19th century buildings, as a possible anchor for a new future.

“Mass MoCA was an idea that started when I was in high school,” Bernard recalled. “My parents were among the people who wrote $100 checks on a promise.”

Bernard, who went on to become the city’s mayor for two terms beginning in 2018, said his family did not know in the 1980s what the museum would be, but they believed it could be a force in revitalizing North Adams. Looking across more than a quarter of a century, he considers how far it has come.

On May 25, Mass MoCA will celebrate 25 years since its opening in 1999. In that time, the museum has won international recognition for art and performance and grown into the largest contemporary art museum in the country and one of the largest in the world.


Anais Velorme of Quebec strolls through part of the Sol Lewitt exhibit “A Wall Drawing Retrospective” at Mass MoCA. The show comprises 105 of Lewitt’s large-scale wall drawings, which together cover nearly an acre of space in three stories of the museum’s Building No. 7. Joan K. Lentini photo

Anais Velorme of Quebec strolls through part of the Sol Lewitt exhibit “A Wall Drawing Retrospective” at Mass MoCA. The show comprises 105 of Lewitt’s large-scale wall drawings, which together cover nearly an acre of space in three stories of the museum’s Building No. 7. Joan K. Lentini photo

Visitors over the years — the museum now sees more than 245,000 annually — may remember the Solid Sound Festival, returning this summer, and Grammy-winning vocalist and composer Rhiannon Giddens singing at FreshGrass, filling the courtyard with the heartbeat of her voice.
They may remember the labyrinth of Nick Cave’s “Until” gleaming in a gallery the size of a football field. Xu Bing’s 100-foot-long phoenixes have flown here. And Ishar Patkin’s translucent walls have held poems by National Book Award-winning poet Agha Shahid Ali, honoring a warm friendship between an Israeli artist and a Muslim poet from Kashmir.

Over the past two decades, lots of small cities around the region — including Pittsfield, Bennington, Rutland, Glens Falls and Hudson, N.Y. — have embraced the idea that a healthy arts scene is one of the keys to re-establishing vibrant downtowns capable of attracting a new, creative of class of entrepreneurs. But in the late 1980s and ‘90s, the notion of starting a new museum as an antidote to the loss of industrial jobs was seen by some as a leap of faith. For North Adams, the benefits have taken time to accrue.

Under the leadership of founding director Joseph Thompson, the museum grew from the ground up, renovating 100-year-old structures on the mill’s campus. It began with 200,000 square feet in five buildings in 1999 and now has 550,000 square feet in 17 buildings.

In the past few years, Mass MoCA has weathered a pandemic, a transition of leadership — as Kristy Edmunds arrived in 2021 from UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance to take the reins from Thompson — and more recently, a strike that led to better pay and benefits for the museum’s employees.


Sue Killam, Mass MoCA’s director of performing arts and film, left, and communications director Jen Falk take a moment to chat in the courtyard outside the museum’s main entrance. Joan K. Lentini photo

Sue Killam, Mass MoCA’s director of performing arts and film, left, and communications director Jen Falk take a moment to chat in the courtyard outside the museum’s main entrance. Joan K. Lentini photo


Vision to reality
Sue Killam remembers the early years. As Mass MoCA’s managing director for the performing arts and film today, she has worked with the museum since its opening summer in 1999. And well before that, she knew the people working to make it happen.

Raising funds and bootstrapping, she recalled, took 14 years — a generation of laying groundwork and community support even before the doors opened. Growing up in Williamstown, while her father taught at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (then North Adams State College), she saw the idea take shape.

She saw a commitment among Thompson and his team, she said, a kind of vision, a willingness to take risks and do whatever was needed — an energy and determination she admired.
“So many headlines said we weren’t going to make it,” she said.

According to local news reports at the time, Thompson and his team forged ahead through changes in leadership and promises of state funding made and withheld, as support from then-Gov. Michael Dukakis turned to opposition from his successor, Gov. William Weld.

Thompson and leaders of the original staff sometimes worked without salary in those early years, as state funding stuttered and stalled and people in the community, including Bernard’s family, stepped in to keep the project alive.

Killam volunteered, then consulted with Jennifer Trainer, who was Mass MoCA’s director of development from 1988 to 2012. And when a partnership with Jacob’s Pillow International Dance Festival convinced Thompson to bring in the performing arts in 1999, Killam took on that role.
“I wanted it to succeed so badly,” Killam said. “That hasn’t changed.”

She remembers the opening day, with 10,000 people coming to see the first nascent shows in the first renovated galleries. She remembers the opening summer, when most of the museum staff worked from the second floor of the gatehouse, when the Internet was still a skeleton scaffolding and the staff wrote membership letters on an electric typewriter.
“We worked so hard to get it going,” she said. “And that was just the starting line.”


Filling an industrial void
Bernard remembers those years from many perspectives. Now the executive director of Berkshire United Way, he is a North Adams native and a Williams alum. (His successor as mayor, Jennifer Macksey, now in her second term, serves as a member of the Mass MoCA Cultural Development Commission, but did not respond to an interview request in April.)
Bernard remembers when Sprague Electric closed its doors in 1986, delivering a psychic shock that hit the community with the force of an earthquake.

Growing up in North Adams at the end of the Sprague era, he would see the shift change downtown at the end of the day. On holiday mornings, his mother would stop at Neville’s Doughnuts — when they were open from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. as the night shift ended and the day shift began.

North Adams had been a Sprague company town since the 1920s. At its height in the 1960s, the mill employed 4,000 people in a city of about 18,000, and about 2,000 still worked there into the 1980s, though employment had dropped to 1,200 by 1986. People worked with their neighbors and live next door to their colleagues.

In 1986, the company shut its North Adams operations with very little warning, devastating the local economy and leaving a void of empty buildings in the city’s center. Local people carry that history, that trauma, that memory, Bernard said.

And in that void, Tom Krens, then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art, suggested the creation of a modern art museum.

“I would say there were people who wholly embraced it, people who were anxious, hopeful, skeptical,” Bernard recalled.

Sometimes they were the same person, he added. And sometimes they still are. He has felt at times a longer-standing tension between Mass MoCA and the local community, partly because the company town is the model people knew — and they wanted it to go on.

Many of the museum’s supporters understood that, despite its many potential economic benefits, it wasn’t going to replace the security and prosperity the mill had delivered for generations of workers, or at least not in the same ways. But fairly or not, some city residents expected that it could — or should.

“I always wonder how much of that we oversold in the creation of Mass MoCA,” Bernard said, “and how much people decided that was the museum’s purpose. Was it a claim we could never live up to, or was it wishful thinking, magical thinking, from people in the community?”


A growing economic impact
Even if it would not take the same form as the city’s earlier industrial prosperity, some supporters saw a new art museum as the anchor for an emerging creative economy.

From the beginning, Bernard said, the vision for Mass MoCA wasn’t just as a magnet for tourism. Instead, the hope was that it would attract creative people — the artists and entrepreneurs of a new high-tech era — who’d choose to live and start businesses in North Adams. The path to revitalization, he explained, always depended on an accumulation of individual investments — not one business employing 3,000 people, but 30 businesses employing 100 people, or 300 employing 10.

Mass MoCA was never going to re-create the model of one company directly offering 1,000 jobs, he said, and for good reason. That model has challenges, and the city had seen the downside: the risk of devastation when a local economy that revolves around a single enterprise loses that focal point.

“Diversifying the economy is the way to create sustainable growth in the long term,” Bernard said.

Because it depends on diverse, small investments, Killam said the success of the local creative economy can be hard to measure.

But longtime Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard, who died earlier this year, tried to do exactly that. In in-depth studies across 10 years, Sheppard looked closely and broadly into the effects of cultural organizations on their local economies.

In a 2017 report, he estimated Mass MoCA’s total economic impact in North Adams then, both direct and indirect, had grown to $51 million a year. He also found steady growth in the museum’s economic impact over the preceding decade — a more than threefold increase from the $16 million annual impact he had estimated in 2007.

As he explained his studies in writing, and in an interview in 2019, Sheppard saw the Berkshires moving from an economy of manufacturing things to an economy of making experiences.
So a museum acting as a generative force could encompass arts and performance while helping to support entrepreneurship and technological innovation — and have an influence extending into community planning, education, housing, local food production and outdoor recreation.
Sheppard was looking at the impact of the museum’s visitors coming to town — and also at contractors like the team who are repairing the roof of Building 5 this month. He took into account tenants like the Berkshire Innovation Center opening an office in the Mass MoCA courtyard, and Mass MoCA programs like Assets 4 Artists offering entrepreneurial training for creative professionals.

He also estimated that the museum was creating, directly and indirectly, as many as half the number of jobs that Sprague had offered in 1986. The museum’s and the state study’s original projections, in studies from 1987 and 1989, suggested Mass MoCA would generate 600 full-time jobs, directly and indirectly. By 2017, Sheppard estimated the museum was generating 586 jobs, some part time.

He was trying to understand, he wrote, how many people have jobs in the community now that would not exist without Mass MoCA — people who work at the museum and in the businesses on its campus, and people who work at jobs the museum has brought here or helped to sustain, as well as people whose work exists here because of the creative, entrepreneurial energy the museum has grown year-round.


Nurturing a creative web
Killam sees Mass MoCA holding influence like a keystone species — one organism that defines a whole ecosystem and keeps it healthy, she explained, recalling the whale song and horseshoe crabs in “Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder,” Chief Curator Denise Markonish’s 2017 collaboration with NASA’s SETI Institute.

In National Geographic’s words, “Without its keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.”

Killam described the museum as a force in shaping conversations in the Berkshires, conversations about the community — and larger conversations the world needs to have.
“It’s so important for Mass MoCA to be here,” she said, “so other people can think creatively about what North Adams and the Berkshires can be.”

Ben Lamb, a former North Adams city councilor who is a member of Mass MoCA’s board, sees the museum as a catalyst for a wide range of economic activity.

“Mass MoCA is a huge component of our local landscape, both physically and economically,” said Lamb, an MCLA alum who is now vice president of economic development at 1Berkshire, the region’s chamber of commerce.

Lamb and Killam discussed some of the connections Mass MoCA has fostered over time. For example, Luiza Folegatti, a Brazilian artist who serves as the Studios at Mass MoCA residency coordinator, came to the museum for an artist residency and wound up moving to North Adams.
Folegatti and Carolina Porras Monroy, the Studios at Mass MoCA residency manager, have created the new Iris Artists Residency at Mass MoCA in partnership with the Berkshire Immigrant Center, and this summer and they are co-curating an exhibit with the first Iris artists at MCLA’s Gallery 51.

Wilco bassist John Stiratt came to town for the Solid Sound festival and wound up transforming an old roadside motel into an eco-friendly lodge. Members of the Bang on a Can ensemble have moved to North Adams. The Grammy-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth started here.
The Berkshire Innovation Center has opened a northern office at Mass MoCA for training in technologies, as North Adams and the Berkshires are seeing a countywide expansion in programs that bring funding, training and support for local startup businesses — programs such as Lever Inc. and Entrepreneurship for All.

“It’s all of those pieces,” Lamb said, “in a murmuration of impact — all of those component parts moving in a collective positive trajectory, doing their own thing … and working with partners.”
He has seen local shops and nonprofits and creative spaces ebb and flow, and the flavors change over time. But walking up Main Street today, Lamb said he sees a growing energy and a diversity of businesses creating a buzz.

“You have the Porches Inn,” he said, “and Tourists Welcome, which is consistently ranked as a top hotel in the world, and GreylockWorks, with its own ecosystem.”

GreylockWorks, a renovated mill, now holds the Break Room coffee shop, Berkshire Cider Project, Greylock Distillery and the Railroad Street Artists Collective among a group of local businesses, studios and professional offices.

Just up the road at the Norad Mill, entrepreneur David Moresi has gathered local ventures from Belltower Records to Tupelo Press, Freia Fibers hand-dyed yarns and Tunnel City Coffee Roastery.

“I think they have grown from that fertile soil” that Mass MoCA helped to create, Lamb said.


Building upon a revival
Lamb and Bernard continue to see investments in the local community and economy that depend on the city’s reinvigorated reputation.

They consider new businesses that have opened downtown — the Bear and Bee Bookshop, Heart’s Pace cafe, Casita, the new Mexican restaurant opened by the owners of Chingon Taco Truck, and the Plant Connector offering begonias, local ceramics and workshops on terraria.
MCLA alums have opened the Common Folk collective, gathering visual artists and musicians downtown. A shoal of art galleries has gathered around Installation Space on Eagle Street and Walkaway House nearby, with Savvy Hive among several new vintage shops.

And Lamb sees connections with the Roots Teen Center and the community gardens near the UNO community center, Hexagon Bagels, and Touchy Coffee from Troy, N.Y., opening a popup on Main Street in May.

Many of these businesses have opened within the past four years.
“The Berkshires have changed a lot after Covid,” Killam said. “People are finding their way here and choosing to stay here because of a way of life.”

The pandemic has made a difference, Lamb agreed, and in rural areas some of that difference has been positive. Though North Adams and the Berkshires have lost population since the 1980s, he believes that trend has begun to change and even reverse.

“Everybody was getting out of urban areas” after the pandemic hit, he said. “In the spring of 2020, the U.S. Postal Service had done a study of the movement of addresses around the country, and the Pittsfield Metro area — all Berkshire County falls into that area — had the highest rate of new address reallocation, people moving into the community, in the entire country.”

Although Covid has calmed since then and some who took shelter here have returned to larger cities, Lamb sees many staying on, and new people arriving, as more have the flexibility to work remotely, virtually or in some hybrid arrangement.

At the same time, Bernard said, a diversified, creative economy takes more players. To sustain this kind of growth, he believes the city needs deep, long-term planning, married with intentional business development. It takes resources and consistency and the right kind of innovative minds to make the dream a reality.

“It’s great that people come to Mass MoCA and to North Adams and are enchanted and ensorcelled by it — as I am,” he said. “I love the city. But it’s accidental. It’s people dropping in to Solid Sound.

“What would it take to get a company to understand that the cost of living is lower here, the cost of real estate is lower, and you have access to natural beauty, culture, good school systems? … And this is the time. Look at the cost of commercial real estate in Boston.”

In his two terms as mayor, some critics suggested Bernard was mainly focused on supporting the city’s arts scene.

“It was an easy knock to call me the MoCA mayor, because I had worked there and I was supportive of the museum,” he recalled. “And I laughed. I embraced it. Why would someone not want to be the cheerleader — and the accountability buddy, because accountability is key — for a museum contributing in collaboration with the city?”


Shaping the future
On a sunny spring afternoon, Killam looked around at the teenagers in the Mass MoCA courtyard, school groups and artists attending the museum’s annual Teen Invitational Exhibit.
The museum’s leadership has had an active spring already, having negotiated the end of a strike and raising its minimum wage to $18 an hour, an annual income of more than $37,000. It also has announced a new $1 million Barr Foundation grant supporting creative place-making efforts.
Killam said the Barr grant will allow the museum to work with North Adams, perhaps with dedicated staff positions, on projects like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ current study of restoring the Hoosic River, protecting against flooding and re-envisioning the 70-year-old cement flood chutes that encase the river’s water through much of downtown and the museum’s campus.
The museum also is working with the city on projects to extend the bike path between Williamstown and the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Adams and improving access between the museum and downtown, including a study of possibly removing or redesigning the Route 2 overpass.

And Mass MoCA is looking into artist housing and studio spaces, and creative economic spaces and environmental sustainability on its own campus.

As its 25th anniversary approaches, the museum also plans to unveil its new strategic plan, Killam said.

“I applaud Kristy’s vision,” she said. “On the flood chutes, she said we have to have a point of view. We’re at the hub of it.”

Bernard sees a need for robust technology infrastructure, access to housing, public transportation and support for the downtown — for people who take the risk and open local, independent businesses.

As in many rural areas, North Adams faces challenges in ensuring the people who live and work here can find family, friendship and community, and sustainable work in their fields while enjoying the Berkshires’ mix of intellectual life and natural beauty.

“I’m hopeful,” Bernard said, “that in the next few years, what Joe Thompson built with so many other people — the board, staff, artists, performers, curators — will evolve. With friendship and appreciation for Joe Thompson, any institution has to persist beyond its founder and origin story.”
The museum’s evolution, he said, will depend on how its current and future leadership “reconcile what Mass MoCA is, can be and needs to be — exciting, messy, chaotic.

“Messy and chaotic are what Mass MoCA does,” he added, “in the best possible way, when they’re done with creativity and respect.”

The museum’s continued success will ensure that local people and visitors alike can go on sitting with friends over fresh carnitas, or savoring Osman Kahn’s visions of djinn in the ether, or listening to the musicians of Bang on a Can playing in the courtyards on summer nights.