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Can a contemporary art mecca anchor this once-industrial town?

August 3, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known as MASS MoCA, has become one of America’s largest exhibition spaces for modern creativity, as well as a case study in reviving old industrial towns. Jeffrey Brown reports on the museum’s decision to embrace the town’s industrial past, and whether replacing manufacturing with art and culture is sufficient to keep North Adams alive.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The recent expansion of an art museum in Western Massachusetts has made it one of the nation’s largest museums for contemporary art. The exhibition space has grown to more than 250,000 square feet, a huge showcase for modern creativity.

As Jeffrey Brown reports, it is also a case study in reviving old industrial towns.

JEFFREY BROWN: In James Turrell’s work, as the title promises, you can literally walk into the light.

Tanja Hollander presents nearly 6,000 images exploring friendship in the age of Facebook.

Laurie Anderson’s large-scale charcoal drawings fill a gallery.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known as MASS MoCA, is a big space for big art. It first opened in 1999 in an old industrial factory in North Adams, a small town in the Berkshire Mountains, and made a name for itself by commissioning and exhibiting works by many leading modern masters, including the sculptor Nick Cave, who filled this enormous with, among much else, 12,000 spinners suspended from wire cables.

JOE THOMPSON, Director, MASS MoCa: It’s grand. It’s a football field in length.

MASS MoCA’s director, Joe Thompson walked me through it.

JOE THOMPSON: It’s a challenging space. It’s a lovely, beautifully proportioned space. We love the fact that it has light streaming in from both sides.

JEFFREY BROWN: You pick the artist, but then you don’t know what that artist is going to do with the space?

JOE THOMPSON: I think that’s — and that’s the joy of this space.

We pick our collaborators, then give the artist a lot of rope, a lot of latitude, a lot of time, and the help that they ask for.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibitions here can be long-term, really long-term, 25 years in the case of this gallery dedicated to the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt.

A big part of the story here is the art, of course. But the walls, the paint, the architecture, well, they tell a different story too, one about American industry, a changing culture, and historic preservation.

MASS MoCA was created from a shuttered network of 26 19th century brick buildings, at the confluence of two branches of the Hoosic River. It was an industrial powerhouse in a region known since colonial times for its manufacturing, everything from shoes to machinery.

From 1860 to 1942, the plant housed the Arnold Print Works, a textile manufacturer. That was followed by Sprague Electric Company, which built components for televisions, weapons and more, and was by far the largest employer in town, some 5,000 jobs in a total population of 20,000.

JOHN SPRAGUE, Former President, Sprague Electric: People used to call it Sprague Town, because if you wanted to get a job in North Adams, you went to work for Sprague or someone who was a local contractor for Sprague, so absolutely dominated the local economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Sprague, the company’s last CEO, says he and his family closed the factory in 1985 due to labor disputes and competition from abroad.

Today, he walks through his old plant with a bit of wonder.

JOHN SPRAGUE: This building was falling apart, and if something hadn’t gone in, it would eventually have been — just fallen apart, have been absolutely devastating.

JEFFREY BROWN: Signs of the old are everywhere, most notably in the Boiler House. Rusting away, with a soundtrack added, it’s a kind of artwork in itself.

Museum director Thompson worked with the design firm Bruner/Cott.

JOE THOMPSON: Layers of paint, worn floors.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you kept it?

JOE THOMPSON: We kept it. It’s beautiful, for one. Where are you going to get something that beautiful? And, on one hand, it marks time. There’s no designer willfulness in it. It’s what came with the building.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the artists here play directly to this idea of making something new from the old.

Lonnie Holley, who uses everyday found materials, is paired with Dawn DeDeaux, who features a wrecking ball, in an exhibit that tapes into the MASS MoCA concept, all the way to the idea of renewing earth itself.

DAWN DEDEAUX, Artist: The work, I think you find in Lonnie’s work and mine, there’s a lot of destruction, reconstruction, considering those types of possible inevitable losses.

LONNIE HOLLEY, Artist: We are taking all of these things and we are turning them into glamorous works of art. This is beautiful. This is like heaven. We called it…

JEFFREY BROWN: This building, this museum.

LONNIE HOLLEY: We called it Holy MoCA for a minute, didn’t we? We called it Holy MoCA.

JEFFREY BROWN: Holy MoCA?

LONNIE HOLLEY: Holy MoCA.

JEFFREY BROWN: The museum might be a new kind of shrine, but can it be more? The original promise of MASS MoCA was ambitious: to anchor a new local economy around culture and tourism.

One local we met has seen the transition up close and personal. Missy Parisien heads security at the museum.

Long ago, her mother, Dolores, worked for Sprague Electric.

Do people in your family, people in the town kind of get that this can be an economic engine? Do they see it that way?

MISSY PARISIEN, MASS MoCA: My family? Yes. My family, yes. They’re all about new things and bringing new things to the city, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But other people were a little skeptical.

MISSY PARISIEN: Not so much, yes.

Even now, it’s still — it’s difficult to get through to the people of North Adams what exactly it is we have here. And I used to be one of those people, too, until I started working here seven years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many years in, MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson believes the economy here has finally turned upward. But it’s been a slow process, beginning at the most basic level of jobs.

JOE THOMPSON: So, you’re talking about, you know, maybe 500 vs. 5,000, a 10th of the labor pool. On the other hand lots of people visit.

I think we will have probably something like 200,000 people visit this year. And they obviously stay and spend time and money, and that generates a lot of economic activity. But it’s a completely different economic reality now.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 87, John Sprague has seen it all in this area, and he’s written a book about its history, with the subtitle “Creation, Disruption, and Renewal in the Northern Berkshires.”

JOHN SPRAGUE: MASS MoCA is certainly the prime example of renewal. And without MASS MoCA, believe me, there’d be nothing. I don’t think there’d be anything left of North Adams. That’s — the question is, is that enough? And that’s the story all over the United States.

It’s not just the story of Sprague Electric or Arnold Print Works or — that’s a manufacturing in the United States problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: And another question, whether art, culture and tourism can be a solution.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts.

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