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Culture factory

An abandoned complex in a New England mill town becomes MoCA, thelargest contemporary art museum in the US.

A profusion of shapes and colors spills across a mostly flat surface. Dark doors lead mysteriously into open air. Bits of metal and plaster refer to events in the distant past.

Truly, all this is evocative and lovely. And it's not even "art." It's just one of the gallery walls here at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

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MASS MoCA inhabits an enormous complex of 19th-century factory buildings in this small western Massachusetts city. MoCA opened in late May, more than 13 years after the idea took shape to house art here.

Already, this museum has assembled a generous display of works from the past 30 years, ranging from Robert Rauschenberg's grandiose "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece" to Tony Oursler's edgy video work called "Optics." But no matter how striking the art, the star of the show is the old factory itself, which was revamped for this museum by the architecture team at Bruner/Cott & Associates.

For example, in one gallery are five untitled works by Dan Flavin composed of fluorescent lights in different colors. At once, the pieces are luminous and elegiac.

Yet as much as one's eyes are drawn to Mr. Flavin's work, the centerpiece of the gallery is an ancient fire door that tells its story in weathered paint.

Earlier this month, as part of the museum's effort to provide a home for a complete array of contemporary arts, MoCA hosted a presentation by Walt Disney's animation studio.

They had come to herald "Dinosaur," a computer-generated animated film that is a first of its kind for Disney. A snippet was shown from the opening scenes of the film involving the perilous journey of a dinosaur egg. The sequence was photo-realistic and utterly stunning.

And it seemed appropriate, too, that a film about dinosaurs should be previewed in a building complex that until recently was itself threatened with extinction.

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Today, this complex has become the largest center for contemporary arts in the United States, with more than 100,000 square feet of gallery space. And MoCA may help this blue-collar city share the cultural spotlight that shines on the rest of Berkshire county.

Shedding image of old mill town

For generations, MoCA's 27-building, 13-acre site was the industrial center of North Adams. First built to produce printed cloth, it most recently served as a factory for electrical components.

But by the early 1980s, foreign competition and other factors had started to weaken the old Sprague Electric Company and in 1985 the factory closed, leaving 4,000 workers unemployed.

North Adams was devastated. This beautiful city, hunkered down in a valley among the gracious and gentle Berkshire hills, experienced its own Great Depression.

It was small consolation that just 10 minutes away by car was the tony and prosperous Williamstown, home to Williams College, the Clark Art Institute, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Or that just a bit farther south were respected and popular institutions like Tanglewood and the Norman Rockwell Museum.

But then in 1986, Thomas Krens, director of the Williams College Museum of Art, approached North Adams's scrappy Mayor John Barrett III with a question: Did Mr. Barrett have a spare mill building to allow the college to expand and display some larger contemporary art?

Barrett suggested Mr. Krens widen his vision ... and take a look at the sprawling Sprague complex. Krens went for it, and in 1988 the Massachusetts State Legislature voted to support the project.

Then things went wrong. In particular, the "Massachusetts Miracle" economic boom evaporated, drying up funding. Krens himself left to head the Guggenheim, handing the reins over to his colleague, Joseph Thompson.

Ultimately, it wasn't just an improving economy and political fortunes that saved MoCA. The town needed the museum to put its name on the map.

"I saw this museum as something that would finally give us credibility," says Barrett, who still is mayor. "We've finally shed the image that we're a dirty old mill town."

Art that moves

MoCA differs from its original model - and other art museums - in important ways.

First, MoCA is the centerpiece for a collaborative effort among many Berkshire cultural institutions, including several from the performing arts, such as Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. MoCA's director, Mr. Thompson, makes sure the museum isn't confined to a conventional arts program.

"Much of the art of the past 30 years - it's misbehaved," says Thompson. "It's refused to hang on the wall. Refused to be just dance, or just film. The most compelling art of our time fits neither in a gallery nor on a conventional proscenium stage.

"There are not a lot of institutions that are equipped to deal with that physical programmatic reality. I think we are. Why? We have space and time."

Lots of it.

In addition to its gigantic exhibit space, which includes a single gallery - the gallery that now features the Rauschenberg - as long as a football field, MoCA has a 10,000-square-foot black box theater and an outdoor theater with a 50-foot-wide screen.

And it doesn't stop there.

Thompson expects his museum will gradually expand into other still-unused buildings in the complex as funds become available. Eventually, he hopes the museum will occupy about 400,000 square feet of gallery and performance space.

Another way MoCA is different is that it has no permanent collection. Works are borrowed from other museums, from private collections, and from the artists themselves.

So about every nine months, new works will take over each gallery. That means summer visitors can have a new art experience each year.

A third difference is that MoCA is a landlord. The museum already has developed 60,000 square feet of space for commercial tenants within its buildings. Hi-tech firms such as Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company, a computer animation firm, and, an e-commerce company, have joined with several other firms to make their home at MoCA.

All this hasn't come without expense. So far the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has ponied up $22 million for construction costs, which has been matched by $9.4 million in private funds.

Trees from a different angle

Evidence of MoCA's difficult birth is still visible to visitors. After threading through an industrial alleyway, one is confronted by the pleasing entrance of the courtyard and Natalie Jeremijenko's unsettling "Tree Logic" - six small maples dangling roots-up from their metal planters.

But to the right is the Building 2 gallery, which still sports broken windows that hint at what the entire complex was like after years of political wrangling.

Its entrance hall is cheerfully industrial, ornamented by rows of battered, but lovable, gray pillars and an admissions desk attached to a giant spring.

From here, it's on to Building 4 where visitors can find James Rosenquist's enormous, swirling painting, "The Swimmer in the Econo-mist." The Tall Gallery is nearly three floors high and partially lighted by clerestory windows. Visitors here, and throughout the rest of MoCA, are invited to take brief texts from wall holders that discuss the art in each gallery.

Farther along, you encounter Bruce Nauman's work. As you squeeze through his seemingly endless "Green Light Corridor," the experience is profoundly claustrophobic. You step into "Yellow Room (Triangular)," which is intended to be uncomfortable and disorienting. And it is!

It's an even greater pleasure to ease oneself into a darkened area to watch "Ghostcatching" - a video installation featuring dancer Bill T. Jones. You don't actually see Mr. Jones dance. Instead, you see images - sometimes multiple images - and drawings generated from sensors attached to Jones as he dances.

A headliner at MoCA right now is Joseph Beuys's "Lightning with Stag in Its Glare." It's a piece that would have been too tall (thanks to a jagged chunk of bronze lightning) and too big (lots of bits and pieces are spread out across the floor) to display in most other museums.

This visitor won't pretend to understand this work except to say its dramatic presence demands attention amid the gloriously weathered walls of its gallery.

A factory for ideas

While many longtime North Adams residents may also be bemused by some of the art here at MoCA, they clearly want the museum to succeed. In recent years the city has reversed its economic decline, but the downtown is still riddled with empty storefronts.

Local merchants have yet to experience a rush of big-spending museumgoers, but several say there has been at least a trickle of new visitors.

Meanwhile, Thompson finally has his museum in a place he hopes will continue to be a factory - "a factory for ideas, a factory for culture, and a factory for commercial products that may not have any physical manifestation.

"The movement from material goods to immaterial pretty much describes the trajectory of industrialization in New England and the world," says Thompson. "So it certainly would be poetic if that entire trajectory [would] take place in one place - at this beautiful factory."

*More information on MASS MoCA can be found on the Web at

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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