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New Vision for an Old Factory

A 13-acre contemporary arts center may help revitalize a former manufacturing town

At first glimpse, it has the look of a giant ghost factory: decrepit chain-link fence, an array of abandoned industrial buildings and machinery.

But this is not a factory - not anymore, at least. What used to be the Sprague Electric Company, here in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, is now the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

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Mass MoCA, as it is called, has a vastly ambitious goal: to convert this 13-acre complex of red-brick mill buildings into a cutting-edge center of contemporary visual, performing, and multimedia arts. Although some people view this as a pipe dream, others cite it as a creative example of how a former manufacturing town can find its place in the new economy.

The project is a daunting one, demanding not only artistic vision but also the honing of political and fund-raising skills, and a dogged persistence on the part of its champions to see the concept through.

"It's the by-hook-or-by-crook method of development," quips Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson. "We'll open these buildings as we go along." The enormous facility - involving some 780,000 square feet, or about a quarter of downtown North Adams - will be rehabilitated in phases. The first phase, involving five buildings and scheduled for completion in 1998, has a projected cost of some $26 million. "We'll be using 185,000 square feet," Mr. Thompson says, "about 75,000 square feet of it gallery space."

The first of the structures opened its doors this summer. Dubbed the Night Shift Cafe, it is hosting "Desire," a multimedia installation created by David Byrne (see left). "It is intended to send something of a signal that it was not going to be business as usual" here, Thompson says. On Sept. 11, country singer Willie Nelson and other pop stars will perform outdoors in a courtyard.

In the future, "we envision a lot of things going on at the same time," says Ben Binswanger, Mass MoCA's director of business development.

The artistic goals are as ambitious as those of the reconstruction. "Our mission is to focus on the art of our times - things that move across boundaries," Thompson says. "The art professions have segregated themselves off into little orbits: the art world, the music world, the dance world. Now, with money hard to get and people worried about audiences, it's dangerous to see yourself as part of just one of these worlds."

One crossover project dear to Thompson's heart involves backdrops by renowned visual artists for dance performances. Jacob's Pillow, the prestigious dance festival, is working on a program "that may involve Merce Cunningham," Thompson says. "He has worked with visual artists like Jasper Johns his entire career, but there has not been a compelling forum for showing both sides of that work." Mass MoCA could provide that forum.

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To achieve such teamwork, Mass MoCA is encouraging relationships with a variety of partners. This facility, Thompson adds, will allow collaborations that wouldn't be possible elsewhere.

But converting so enormous a facility is an ongoing challenge. Sprague Electric employed some 4,000 people here when it shut down 10 years ago, and the impact on this community of about 20,000 was devastating. Today 27 buildings and other remnants are spread across what looks like a lost industrial civilization.

"Those buildings are part of this city's history, and I don't ever want to lose that," says John Barrett III, mayor of North Adams and chairman of the Mass MoCA Cultural Development Commission.

"There's a great optimism that comes with this project," he adds. "The tourist dollar was nonexistent, maybe 5 percent of our total economy a few years ago. Now it's got to be in the 35 to 40 percent area. Mass MoCA is part of that. We're seeing visitors who haven't come before."

Such prospects were not on the horizon 10 years ago when Thomas Krens - then director of the Williams College Museum of Art, now head of New York's Guggenheim Museum - was looking for a space to show works of art too big for many museums. He thought of converting one of the mill buildings for that purpose, and the idea blossomed into a vision encompassing the whole facility.

Eventually the state legislature allocated a $35 million bond issue, to be supplemented by fund-raising from private sources. But the political climate changed, and the project became a target for opponents of government arts funding. The money for Mass MoCA was rescinded. Gov. William Weld later had a change of heart, however, and some state funding was released.

Some view this off-again-on-again history as a problem. "The trouble with Mass MoCA is that we've had so much promise and so little performance," says Donald Thurston, president of Berkshire Broadcasting, which owns radio stations in the area. "It's taken us eight or nine years to get what the legislature passed into some form of hard money."

Yet private fund-raising has brought results. "We've ended up at $8 million in nonstate contributions," Thompson says. "And it was not a lot of big gifts, but 640 separate ones."

Mr. Thurston agrees Mass MoCA is the kind of forward-looking economic move the area needs. "Many of us in the business community recognize the business implications far more than we understand its implications for contemporary art," he says. "But it seems to be a natural fit, especially when you look around and see what a strong role the arts already plays in the economic life of Berkshire County."


*Take the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company (KWCC), renowned for creating digital effects for feature films like "Stargate," "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid," and "Clear and Present Danger."

Get it together with renowned performing-arts groups likes ones at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

The result - if things work the way the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art hopes - could be a leap forward both technologically and artistically.

KWCC is reaching for a whole new way to study dance. "Take an electrode, slap it on your body, and the motions you make get digitized into a computer," is how Ben Binswanger, Mass MoCA's director of business development, describes the process. This "motion-capture technology" is "not the same as studying dance in written form. It's better."

This combination of capabilities represents the kind of synergy Mass MoCA is striving for as it invites "partners" to locate at its facility or come and perform here.

At the moment, KWCC is the only tenant, but several other partners will participate in one way or another:

*The Lucien Aigner Gallery, a collection of pioneer photojournalist Lucien Aigner's photographs, negatives, and related archival and historical material, plans to locate here.

*The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, located in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, will use Mass MoCA space for visual and performing arts.

*The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., home of a collection of Impressionist and Early American Art, will sponsor two shows a year at Mass MoCA.

*501C3, a New York-based, nonprofit research-and-development group for multimedia products and on-line programs, will use space for R&D and training.

*The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York's renowned center of contemporary and modern art, is discussing a relationship with Mass MoCA.

*Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival will conduct several performances at Mass MoCA.

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