Hudson, New York
Local culture
17 May 2017 10:56AM
John Isaacs

When MASS MoCA inaugurates its new 130,000 square foot wing, on May 28, it becomes the fifteenth largest art museum in the world, and the fourth largest in the US, up there with the National Gallery in DC.

The dramatic renovation cost $35 million, the bulk of which was provided by the State: peanuts by today’s standards (Hudson Opera House, after all, spent roughly $8.5 million renovating its 4,000 square foot Hudson Hall).

The enlarged institution now extends across the full span of its North Adams campus, culminating to the west in the three-story ship-prow-shaped Building 6, the cathedral-like windows of which have been retained to provide splendid views of the Hoosic River that careens through the town, and the northern Berkshire mountains that surround it. Watercolorist Barbara Prey’s monumental (16 x 9 foot) portrait of the space meticulously, and exuberantly, depicts the raw structure of the exposed post-and-beam building.

Without wayfinding signage, presumably to be installed before the public opening, the complex is a bit hard to get one’s head around, a sequence of galleries carved and stacked within a vast old industrial space with no obvious axis (though with some wonderful, mysterious narrow passageways opening into a brilliant skylit arcade). Some of the individual galleries are nonetheless spectacular, and some of the installations underway no less so.

Outstanding are those devoted to the work of typography diva Jenny Holzer, legendary light artist James Turrell, and Louise Bourgeois, whose transformative visions of human anatomy are well represented by, for example, one particular untitled piece that weighs 32 tons (the walls of the building had to be broken out to bring it in). And plenty of other interesting stuff, and a certain amount of less so.

All in all, to add these elements (and a number of working studios in which artists like Laurie Anderson are engaged in long-term residencies) to an existing collection that includes vast spaces devoted to the work of masters like Sol LeWitt and Anselm Kiefer, as well as to temporary exhibits by other eminences, plus a densely populated performance calendar, which will now be supported by proper rehearsal and dressing rooms, represents a monumental effort to create a world-class art museum in the boondocks.

Well, not exactly. Nearby Williamstown boasts one of the loveliest museums in North America, the Clark Institute, as well as Williams College’s own museum of art. So a weekend spent in this little corner of the world is as rich with cultural possibilities as anywhere in the northeast. Actually, North Adams is to Williamstown what Brooklyn is, or was, to Manhattan: it’s a shame there isn’t the equivalent of a Brooklyn Bridge to connect them, instead of a depressing stretch of highway.

That aside, as long-time MASS MoCA director Joseph Thompson, whose contagious enthusiasm and devotion galvanize the whole project, pointed out, the main problem, particularly in peak season, is the dearth of hotel accommodation in the area, though that situation has improved somewhat in recent years. What has not changed however, is the generous spirit with which the museum serves the local population, offering free admission several times a year, among other perks.

I remember well, when it first opened its doors one Saturday afternoon in 1999, that it seemed like everyone and their grandmother poured into the place, plenty of whom had surely never set foot in an art gallery. They just loved it.

Which is the beauty and genius of MASS MoCA: without sacrificing its devotion to art of the highest standard, it presents it with a passion for accessibility and community involvement. The new addition doubles the pleasure, and the possibilities.

Barbara Prey and her watercolor portrait of Building 6
Jenny Holzer installation
MASS MoCA Director Joseph Thompson

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