MASS MoCA expansion promises bold new direction

Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA stands in front of Building 6, the site of the museum’s announced expansion. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post
Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA stands in front of Building 6, the site of the museum’s announced expansion. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post

This week, MASS MoCA announced its most recent addition to the blooming arts hub of the Berkshires. The museum intends to undergo an expansion to be completed in 2017 that will endow it with more exhibition space than any other contemporary art museum in the country, trumping the recent holder of this accolade, New York State’s Dia: Beacon in the Hudson River Valley. The latter occupies 240,000 square feet, a measly figure when compared to MASS MoCA’s projected 260,000 square feet.

The museum will, indeed, rise to the ranks of the largest exhibition space of any genre in the United States, competing only closely with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Accompanying the recent expansion of the Clark Art Institute, the proposed augmentation promises to mature and animate the area surrounding the College. The museum will double its already vast space via a renovation of Building 6, a three-storied building, which covers an acre. The changes will imitate MASS MoCA’s pre-existing pattern of reanimating old factory buildings as a series of voluminous exhibition spaces. The museum has raised $13.5 million of a goal of $30 million in private funds to direct towards its efforts. These funds will be bolstered by a $25.4 million state grant announced earlier this year. The expansion will initiate the third phase of the museum’s development since its 1997 initiation and 1999 opening. The number of visitors is projected to increase from 132,000 to 198,000 per year, following the opening of the rejuvenated museum in May 2017. Joseph Thompson, director of the institution, described it to The Boston Globe as a “campus of museums.”

More important, however, than the numerical value of the expansion is the contribution it promises to the overall landscape of modern museums and contemporary art. The transformative renovation will offer a new model for museums around the world. The space will house exhibitions for upwards of 15 to 25 years. The shown works will still be owned by artists or their foundations but will be accommodated in a semi-permanent fashion, creating a new category within the types of exhibitions fostered by museums. Thompson himself commented that “it’s rather unusual.” But it is not unforeseen within the confines of MASS MoCA itself. The pre-cursor to this grand plan is the still-showing Sol LeWitt installation which opened in 2008, hosting 107 wall drawings over three stories and 27,000 square feet, which will remain showing until 2033. The installation of the phenomenal exhibit required the collaboration of 60 artists and art students over six months of work. Monumental and demanding, the model for long-term, semi-permanent exhibitions was imitated in 2013 by the opening of the achingly moving Anselm Kiefer installation in an old water tank renovated and converted into a 10,000 square foot gallery in partnership with the Hall Art Foundation. As Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Gallery told The Boston Globe, MASS MoCA is “quite unlike any other museum in the country.”

The museum plans to fill the incoming space with exactly the massive, technically difficult and stunningly unique art that has already distinguished MASS MoCA among its peers. The space has established six new partnerships with the Robert Rauschenberg foundation, multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, light artist James Turrell and instrument maker Gunnar Schonbeck. These six accomplished artists will grace the museum space with their work for the anointed time period of 15-25 years. Turrell expressed his excitement for the project, telling The New York Times, “If you go there and see the Sol LeWitt installation, you’ll understand how meaningful it can be.” Turrell is showing a two-story version of his Ganzfeld work that includes a light field absorbing visitors in its challenge of depth perception. Additionally, the artist will transform a water tank into one of his signature “skyspaces” and will donate one or two works to the museum’s permanent collection. Michael Govan, who worked on MASS MoCA in the 1980s and is now director of the rival Los Angeles County Museum of Art commented to The New York Times: “These partnerships come from opportunities created by the space. [MASS MoCA] could be a model for communities that are willing to invest in space.”

Indeed, MASS MoCA’s proposed changes bear the potential to change not only the space proximal to the College but the space of museums around the world in multifarious and thrilling ways. The expansion will be a daring one; big and bold, it will suit the youthfully innovative character of the museum. As Thompson said to The Boston Globe, “Most museums are beautiful white boxes. Abstract, clean, perfectly proportioned boxes. That’s not what MASS MoCA is. The character of the buildings here is strong. They’re vernacular, raw, industrial buildings. They’re not the kind of place where a show of small framed paintings works perfectly.”