When mid-Hudsonites consider the subject of adaptive reuse of industrial sites to provide large open spaces for the exhibition of modern art, we tend to think first of the former Nabisco-box-manufacturing plant that became Dia:Beacon. I don’t mean to diss that fabulous venue in any way; but another entity within easy driving distance, MASS MoCA, got there first, in 1999. And 15 years on, it remains a cutting-edge explorer of the ways in which the buildings that house art exhibitions can become integral components of the creation of art itself – not just passive backdrops or containers. Susan Cross, curator of Visual Arts at MASS MoCA, will be visiting the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum this Sunday afternoon to talk about her experiences there and what’s coming up next, “Rethinking the Museum Model.”
The 19th-century factory building complex straddling the Hoosick River in North Adams, Massachusetts that became MASS MoCA started out as the Arnold Print Works, thriving during the Civil War by manufacturing printed cloth for the Union Army. Rebuilt and expanded after a catastrophic fire in 1871, it employed more than 3,000 workers by 1905. Competition from Southern mills forced the textile facility’s closure in 1942, but the Sprague Electric Company quickly stepped in, employing a large, mostly female workforce to make capacitors by hand. Electronic components of the trigger for the atomic bomb and the launch system for the Gemini moon missions were developed and manufactured at Sprague, and during the company’s 1960s peak, 23 percent of the North Adams population worked there.
But in the mid-1980s, competition from places with a cheaper labor force – in Asia this time – again put a Berkshires-based industry out of business, with no other industrial users lining up to move in. In quest of places to hang oversized artworks in their collections, some folks from the nearby Williams College Museum of Art started thinking outside the blank white box and got the ball rolling on a 13-year process to fundraise, clean up, renovate and convert the factory site into a new type of art venue.
Right from the get-go, MASS MoCA’s operators tinkered with the notion that whatever they exhibited, long-term or short, had the potential to be in some way site-specific, beyond the obvious need for big viewing spaces for big paintings and sculptures. A photographic chronicle of the site’s revitalization became one of its earliest exhibits. Group exhibitions like “Material World” and “The Workers” and installations like Dave Cole’s The Knitting Machine and especially Simon Starling’s The Nanjing Particles – which used a stereoscopic photo of 19th-century Chinese factory workers, imported to break a strike in North Adams, to inspire two large-scale metal sculptures – integrated the site’s industrial history directly, if abstractly, into the art itself, clouding the distinctions between work and setting.
Other installations, like Katharina Grosse’s spray-painted dirt piles overflowing balconies and Jenny Holzer’s projections on the walls, utilized the site’s physical infrastructure as part of the art, literally. The “Badlands” environmental art show brought the outdoors indoors. Even just as a large space for large artworks, MASS MoCA pushes old boundaries by making room – conceptually as well as physically – for artists to hang a Mies van der Rohe glass house (Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Gravity Is a Force to Be Reckoned With) or six live trees (Natalie Jeremijenko’s Tree Logic) upside-down from the ceiling. If Earth’s biosphere is our home, a single complex living cell and the incarnation of the goddess Gaia all in one, then by a similar metaphor, MASS MoCA is the Muses and all their wildfires of inspiration made manifest in red brick. The art museum permeates and becomes the art.
A former Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curator, Susan Cross has been organizing major exhibitions at MASS MoCA since 2006, including “Spencer Finch: What Time Is It on the Sun?” “Material World: Sculpture to Environment,” “The Workers: Precarity/Invisibility/Mobility” and “Invisible Cities.” Her recent curatorial projects include “Darren Waterston: Uncertain Beauty” and “The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor.” Cross also served as the juror for WAAM’s 2014 Solo Shows.
Part of the WAAM Dialogues series, “MASS MoCA at 15 Years: Rethinking the Museum Model” is sure to be a thought-provoking talk for artists, arts presenters and audiences alike. It begins at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 16, and you’re invited.
Susan Cross on “MASS MoCA at 15 Years: Rethinking the Museum Model,” Sunday, November 16, 2 p.m., Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, 28 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-2940, https://www.woodstockart.org.