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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Museum Review: Massachusets Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams

Museum Review:
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
 in North Adams, Massachusetts

 The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts is a large (100,000 + square feet) museum that was formed out of an abandoned factory site.  The factory was first a cloth manufacturing facility and then an electronics manufacturing plant, and then abandoned.   In late 1980s, the process of conversion to a museum space began, and the museum opened in 1999.  Independent of any specific exhibits, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass Moca) is a must visit for the museum itself.  The two obvious comparisons from my experience are the Tate Modern in London, housed in an abandoned power plant, and the Guggenheim Bilbao, which is also set in a Genry designed "deconstructed" building in the former port district of Bilbao.  

  The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is different from the two comparisons made above in that it fully inhabits the geographic SPACE of a former manufacturing town.    The Tate Modern, for all its authenticity as a South Bank Power Plant, is located in the anodyne London city center of the 21st century, and the Bilbao Guggenheim is a honest to god Frank Gehry designed structure in a port area that has been entirely given over to white collar business and the tourist trade.

   North Adams is at the northern edge of the region in Massachusetts known as the "Berkshires."  Geographically speaking, the Berkshires are the portion of the Northern Appalachian mountain chain called "the Berkshires" in Massachusetts and "the White Mountains" in Vermont.  They are, in fact, the same set of mountains.   North Adams is set in a river valley formed by Hoosic river, which flows through western New York, southern Vermont and northern Massachusetts.  The Hoosic river was an important source of hydroelectric power for mills operating in the region.

  Any trip to Mass MOCA almost requires a stroll into North Adams, since the town functions as an appendage of the Factory/Museum.  The juxtaposition of town and factory/museum forces the visitor to think about larger issues of the area: employment options, socio-economic status, changes wrought by the broad economic currents of 20th century history.    Which is not to say that the museum exhibits themselves do not intrigue.  The growth in popularity of installation art in large, open plan museums is one that spans the globe. You can find such museums, inevitably featuring the word "Modern" in their name, throughout the world.

  The defining feature of many such museums is their lack of anything approaching a first rate permanent collection. Some of this lies in the difficulty in acquiring canonical pieces in the ever changing flow of what constitutes modern art.  Some of it lies in ideological opposition to the idea of the permanent collection and the role it plays in indoctrinating visitors to the museum in the ideology of the collector/institution art industrial complex.
The Sol Lewitt permanent exhibit at Mass Moca North Adams

 The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams neatly sidesteps the dilemma by making its permanent exhibit a single site specific multi floor exhibit of Sol Lewitt patterned wall paintings.  It is more Sol Lewitt in one place than you are likely to see in a lifetime of visits to other museums.
Jim Shaw, Whistle While You Work, 2014- an example of his work blending Disney and Superhero motifs with a critique of materialism in society.

  The temporary exhibits held their own against the formidable amount of space.  There are no paintings on the wall at Mass Moca, or if there are they are likely to be a wry comment on some aspect of the contemporary art world.  The stand out exhibit in my mind was Jim Shaw's ....Entertaining Doubts, which combined super hero motifs with religion in a non-didactic way.  One room featured banners hung from the ceiling with a Superman type figure in various states of physical distress- Superman defeated.  Other aspects of the exhibit referenced Walt Disney and the American West in an effortlessly entertaining and though provoking manner.

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