Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art director Joseph Thompson, who over the course of three decades nursed an extravagant dream into the country’s largest museum for contemporary art, announced Friday that he will step down at the end of October.
Thompson said he’s been contemplating the move since opening the museum’s Building 6 three years ago, a massive undertaking that brought the work of art world luminaries Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg, James Turrell, and others under the museum’s capacious roof, cementing Mass MoCA’s position as an art world destination that has also served as a driver of economic growth in its hardscrabble corner of Western Massachusetts.
Thompson, whose 32-year directorship has at times been controversial, will stay on for another year as “Special Counsel” to the museum’s board, working on special projects and helping to raise funds.
Tracy Moore, who now serves as Mass MoCA’s deputy director and CEO, will assume the role of interim director after Thompson’s transition on Oct. 29. The board plans to conduct a “broad” search for a new permanent director in the coming months, which will include both internal and external candidates.
“It just felt like the right time at least to begin the baton passing process,” said Thompson, 62. “We’ve got really great systems in place. The staff is strong. The board is rock solid. We managed our way through the shutdown and reopening with our little starter endowment intact.”
Nevertheless, Thompson’s decision to step down during the global pandemic means his permanent replacement will likely assume leadership duties at a time of epochal economic challenge in the arts. Thompson laid off nearly three-quarters of the museum’s staff last April, and while some of those jobs have returned, the museum’s underlying economic vulnerability remains unchanged: With a relatively modest endowment of just $25 million, Mass MoCA derives some 70 percent of its income from earned revenue such as rentals, ticket sales, and events, giving it few reserves during a shutdown.
Even so, Mass MoCA board chair Timur Galen said he was bullish on the museum’s future, praising the director’s sweeping vision and saying Thompson would be instrumental in buttressing the museum’s economic future.
“There’s an incredible future ahead for Mass MoCA and its platform that’s really been built by [Thompson’s] vision,” said Galen. “We’re sobered in a way by his decision to transition leadership, but we’re totally energized by what he wants to accomplish in doing so.”
Although Mass MoCA today spans 550,000 square feet across 17 buildings, Thompson said it started as little more than an audacious dream — lacking both land and funding — that Thomas Krens hatched in the 1980s, recruiting Thompson and Michael Govan to the idea. But while Krens left to lead the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and Govan now heads the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Thompson became Mass MoCA’s founding director, eventually opening the museum in North Adams’s sprawling old Arnold Print Works factory in 1999.
In those early years, Mass MoCA followed the path of many non-collecting contemporary art museums, closing down after each show to take down the exhibition and install the next. But Thompson pioneered a novel strategy for presenting top-shelf artists when in 2008 the museum unveiled a massive Sol LeWitt installation on a 25-year loan. (Thompson said the loan has since been extended by 10 years.)
The exhibition, a collaboration with Yale University Art Gallery, Williams College Museum of Art, and the artist’s estate, was transformative for the museum, catapulting Mass MoCA into a new strata of art-world destinations.
“Up until that time, 100 percent of the museum changed every year, so we were always as good as our last show,” said Thompson, who added that the arrangement offered the museum many benefits of a permanent collection but few of the liabilities. “It was just this kind of center of gravity, a powerful proton around which our three-ring circus of changing exhibitions could rotate like electrons.”
The LeWitt exhibition served as a model, and in subsequent years the museum has entered similar long-term arrangements to showcase works by Turrell, Rauschenberg, and Bourgeois, as well as Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson, and others.
Meanwhile, the museum has steadily expanded its footprint across its 16-acre-plus campus, offering performance artist residencies and presenting a number of music festivals, including the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, and FreshGrass.
Even so, Thompson’s tenure has not been without controversy. In 2007, the museum entered a bitter legal dispute with Swiss artist Christoph Büchel over “Training Ground for Democracy,” an elaborate installation that called for a rebuilt movie theater, a two-story house, multiple wrecked vehicles, and an oil tanker.
The parties eventually settled, but the fracas elicited fierce scorn on Thompson and the museum.
“It was certainly one of the most intense things,” said Thompson. “It just made me think that I was destined to work only with artists that I deserved.”
More recently, Thompson pleaded not guilty to a charge of vehicular homicide following a crash in the summer of 2018 that resulted in the death of motorcyclist Steven Fortier, 49.
Thompson declined to comment on the case other than to say he’s still awaiting a trial date.
Board chair Galen said the board’s search for a new director will have to be extensive to find someone who can ably succeed Thompson, who from the beginning sought to harness Mass MoCA’s cultural draw as a force of economic development in and around struggling North Adams.
Working with board members, Thompson has developed a portion of Mass MoCA’s campus for commercial real estate, providing revenue for the museum while also contributing to the local economy. According to the museum, it hosts 300,000 visitors each year (pre-pandemic), generating some $52 million in new economic activity.
But with a number of buildings yet to be developed, an endowment to grow, and acres of open space to program, Thompson said that whoever takes over for him will have a vast task in front of them.
“There’s as much work to do over the next 20 years as there’s been in the last 20,” said Thompson. “And you know, it’s time for somebody with fresh eyes, fresh perspective, and fresh energy to come do this.”