Art In Post Industrial Towns by Geoff Harrison

The town of North Adams Massachusetts was on its knees following the closure of the local electronics industry in 1985.  At its height, the Sprague Electric Company employed over 4000 people in a community of 18000 but cheap imports from Asia killed it.  The factories themselves date back to the late 19th century when it started out as a print works.


The BBC screened a series called Relative Values many years ago and one episode focused on plans to turn the huge factory complex into a contemporary art museum.  I wanted to find out if it had become a reality.

Plans to transform the factory complex date back to the year after Sprague closed, 1986, when staff from the nearby Williams College Museum of Art were inspecting the facility as a suitable venue to exhibit large contemporary art that were not able to be displayed in a more traditional gallery setting.  They realised the buildings had much more potential than as an offshoot gallery.  Several years of fundraising followed and petitioning of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts resulted in an $18.6 million grant.


The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opened in 1999 with 19 galleries and 9,300 m2 of exhibition space which has since more than doubled with subsequent expansions. In addition to housing galleries and performance art spaces, it also rents spaces to commercial tenants. Music festivals are also held there.


According to a NPR (National Public Radio) article from 2012, you could pick up a live/work loft space for under $40,000.  Sounds attractive, but Mass MoCA has not been the employment generator that was first envisioned.  Original estimates that the development would create 600 jobs proved off the mark.  The real number is less than 300, although with subsequent expansions this figure may have increased.  There is some skepticism these days that a post-industrial town can turn things around entirely by building art galleries and developing economies based on the so-called creative industries.  It would appear that Mass MoCA is a work in progress.

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn