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

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


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, Massachusetts Museum
of Contemporary Art: 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 CEO, Sprague Electric
Company: 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, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary
Art: 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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