NORTH ADAMS — When the bustling mills here sputtered and failed over the last several decades, much of the soul of North Adams went with them. Residents dispersed, unemployment soared, and rates of teenage pregnancy and domestic violence followed suit.
Once-thriving Main Street decayed into a ghostly parade of empty windows, and a manufacturing savior was nowhere to be found.
Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow were somebody else’s idea of a Berkshires economy. Not in lunch-pail North Adams.
But now, in a startling shift, North Adams is being remade by the commerce of culture.
And it’s not just powered by the acclaimed Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MASS MoCA. Since the museum opened more than a decade ago, a string of other galleries have followed.
Downtown is home to 21 art galleries and museums. Ten pieces of public art bring color to its outdoor spaces. And the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, part of the state university system, is deeply involved in developing and promoting artists.
“It’s kind of an amazing thing to have a depressed town reinvigorated through art,” said Jonah Emerson-Bell, a 31-year-old designer building a dance set at MASS MoCA.
Art and its influence are visible up and down the wide Main Street, where the local Registry of Motor Vehicles office shares a floor with the North Adams Artists’ Co-Op Gallery. Nearby is Press, another Main Street gallery, which is next to Gallery 51, which is next to Gallery 53.
Many artists — some believe hundreds — live in the city of 13,583 people, where a two-bedroom apartment can be had for $450 a month. Instead of the repetition of factory work, North Adams today is more likely to mean painting, photography, and pop-up performances.
“It’s a gem here,” said Jennifer Crowell, a 31-year-old musician who moved from Vermont and is Gallery 51’s program coordinator. “North Adams is one of those places that is kind of hidden but has city-quality art.”
Tucked into the northwest corner of Massachusetts, the least populated city in the state still has economic worries. The unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in August topped the state rate of 6.8 percent. And its population has fallen by 29 percent, from 19,195, since 1970.
Decades later, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs after the 1985 closing of Sprague Electric, the longtime engine of the local economy, is still recalled as a catastrophe.
“It was like a neutron bomb hit,” said Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA. “We opened in 1999, and at that time North Adams was rather dramatically isolated from the rest of the Berkshires art and education milieu.”
No more. A growing cluster of ambitious artists, affordable living and studio spaces, and culture-friendly allies at the college and City Hall have made North Adams a miniature mecca for the creative.
The trend has been good for business, too, city officials said. A summerlong event called DownStreet Art, a weekly smorgasbord of entertainment and open galleries, draws about 1,000 people every Thursday night. At other times, visitors can satisfy their artistic appetite by following a trail of yellow painted footprints that proclaim: “More art this way.”
Stephen Hannock, a painter known for large, luminous landscapes, employs 10 people in a 12,000-square-foot studio here. To Hannock, whose work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the arts scene in North Adams is forging a separate identity from the Berkshire magnets of Stockbridge, Lenox, and even Williamstown, the tony college town next door.
As a gift to the new science center, Hannock donated a large painting that depicts North Adams from about 2,000 feet in the air, a westward view that blends lush mountains, the winding Hoosic River, and the steeples, old factories, and Victorian homes that dot the city.
“This really is a dynamic area,” Hannock said.
The city’s mayor, Richard Alcombright, a former longtime banker, has hopped aboard the cultural bandwagon. Although Alcombright, 59, is a self-described “townie” who recalls when North Adams defined itself by “family, religion, sports, and ethnicity,” the mayor embraces what the arts have breathed into the community.
“A lot of it has been the college, a lot of it has been MoCA, and if the city didn’t follow, something’s very wrong,” said Alcombright, in his second term and seeking a third. “If you go out and see your neighbor raking leaves, you go out and rake your leaves.”
Alcombright and other civic and cultural leaders praised the energy and vision of Mary Grant, the president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. In Grant’s 11-year administration, they said, the former North Adams State College has become integrated with the city and MASS MoCA in unprecedented ways.
Gallery 51, for example, is run by the college through its Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, and many college graduates have worked at MASS MoCA. The college also is the lead partner in the Berkshire Compact for Education, a collaborative effort working to increase access for county residents to higher education.
The college is forging business relationships to seed and grow what Grant hopes will be a harvest of biotechnology and life sciences jobs in the Berkshires. The institution’s new, $30 million science center is being groomed as a catalyst.
Already, Nuclea Biotechnologies, about 20 miles south in Pittsfield, has invested $250,000 in a research agreement with the college, where 30 percent of the students are majoring in science or related fields.
“The reason we’re paying for this is it helps us on the backside of things. It’s a quid pro quo,” said Patrick Muraca, president of Nuclea. “We thought there was a great opportunity for new workforce development.”
Grant said she is confident that jobs will follow, and the mayor sees encouraging signs. Crane & Co., the stationer, recently added 85 full-time jobs and another shift — the first time North Adams has had a second shift in at least three decades, Alcombright said.
Several other businesses have added a dozen or two dozen workers, the mayor said. One new business, a converted bowling alley, offers a virtual golfing center where duffers can imagine themselves playing the world’s greatest courses.
“You can’t get a tee time on the weekend,” Alcombright said with a big smile.
Such commercial growth seems critical to some residents who do not have confidence that the arts, by themselves, are a solid economic foundation.
“It’s all well and good, but what we need is industry,” said Paul Doan, the 65-year-old owner of the Hub, a busy Main Street restaurant. Young people without the aptitude for higher education, he said, will continue to be left adrift as the city’s manufacturing past becomes an ever-distant memory.
“There used to be jobs for them, but there aren’t anymore. Anybody that says anyone can make it if they try . . . , ” Doan said with a shake of his head, his voice trailing off as he worked the lunch rush.
On the other side of the counter, set designer Emerson-Bell finished a sandwich before heading back to MASS MoCA in time for a rehearsal by the David Dorfman Dance troupe. He’s a native of Cambridge, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is impressed by the trends in North Adams.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m sort of jealous,” Emerson-Bell said. “I’m sick of living in the city and want to be up here.”
For skeptics who wonder whether arts can help revive a community, Emerson-Bell offered these thoughts: “Artists are buying products. They’re shipping things. And they’re employing people.”
For Grant, the college president, that artistic influence dovetails with her mission to improve higher education in the region, help create jobs, and give graduates a reason to stay in the Berkshires.
“We are,” Grant said, “in the business of hope.”