It rained in North Adams last weekend, and the highly anticipated Jeff Tweedy concert at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was quickly moved indoors to the Hunter Center.
Organizers added a Sunday matinee in addition to the original Saturday night date to accommodate all ticket holders in a safer, socially distanced manner. The Hunter Center still looked packed with concertgoers clutching icy beverages, scarcely a mask in sight. When the Wilco frontman started singing “Just a Friend” in tribute to rapper Biz Markie, who died last Friday, the crowd started singing along with unmuffled glee.
After a year and a half of closures and readjustments, the Tweedy concert was just one of many in-person live events returning to Mass MoCA this summer. Next up is the annual marathon by contemporary classical group Bang on a Can (July 30-31), a rain-or-shine date with hip-hop band The Roots (Aug. 22), and the return of the popular FreshGrass bluegrass and traditional music festival (Sept. 24-26).
Gatherings like these have been central to the Mass MoCA formula since its founding in 1999. That meant a big hit to “earned revenue” — including ticket sales, concessions, and rental fees — when the museum first closed to the public in March 2020. Less than a month later, Mass MoCA laid off 120 of its 165 employees and reduced the pay of remaining workers up to 30 percent. In a statement at the time, founding director Joseph Thompson wrote: “The COVID-19 contagion strikes at the very heart of our mission, which is to gather together large numbers of people around acts of creativity.”
Now leadership is working to restore the museum’s income stream and return to full-capacity operations, albeit with changes for the COVID era. “Our plan for this summer is by intention less robust than pre-pandemic summers,” according to interim director Tracy Moore, who stepped in when Thompson retired last fall. “From a budget standpoint, we anticipated that and are tracking our gathering numbers.”
So far, the reopening strategy seems to be working and even exceeding targets. Museum attendance in June 2021 of 13,120 people surpassed that of June 2019 by 24 percent, and ticket sales for September’s FreshGrass festival are higher this year than at this time in 2019. A total of 1,834 people attended the July 17 and 18 concerts by Jeff Tweedy, with the museum even selling a small number of walk-up tickets to the Sunday matinee.
“I think there’s pent-up energy and interest in the arts,” Moore continued in a phone interview. “There’s a readiness to return to gathering and a long-overdue quenching of an appetite.”
Mass MoCA reopened on July 11, 2020 and has been slowly expanding in-person events ever since. An early pandemic offering was “Auditory After Hours,” launched in November, a series that invites museumgoers to experience gallery-specific music curated by guests including jazz artist Jason Moran. Visitors were asked to bring their own devices and headphones. Everyone had to wear masks, stand in line at a distance, and have their e-tickets ready to scan.
When I visited the museum last Saturday, I immediately saw remnants of this ultra-cautious past in the white squares (marked for social distancing) spray-painted across the concrete floor of Courtyard D. It had been 17 months since my last art museum visit. I arrived wearing a mask but quickly ditched it after noticing the bare faces of staff and other adult guests. Sure, I continued to see “Masks Welcome” signs posted throughout the galleries, and face coverings are recommended for indoor events. I still kept mine wrapped loosely around the wrist.
This was the day Mass MoCA hosted its annual Community Day, a family-friendly affair normally held in January with free admission for all. This year, free entry was only offered to Berkshire County residents. In years past, the event drew around 3,000 people, according to education director and Kidspace curator Laura Thompson. But only 1,632 people arrived for the July 2021 iteration.
As I walked around, I spotted in Courtyard C the launch of Wes Bruce’s “The Drifting Studio,” an interactive sculpture on wheels that will travel to schools, parks, and social service agencies to offer art-making opportunities for families. Just then, Bruce was leading a few young visitors through a project that turns natural materials into stamps.
“I’m of the mind-set that through trying cultural moments you have to think with your hands,” Bruce remarked in between imprints.
In the indoor Kidspace gallery, Wendy Red Star’s “Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird” exhibition prompted museumgoers to interpret and draw responses to words from the Apsáalooke (Crow) language. I found four families, mostly wearing masks, sitting at separate red tables while quietly making cellophane portraits.
Given the expanse of the museum’s 16-acre campus and 250,000 square feet of gallery space, I couldn’t see everything on my wish list. I walked through Glenn Kaino’s “In the Light of a Shadow” installation. I took pictures in front of Jenny Holzer’s colorful “Inflammatory Walls.”
I also noticed how more exhibits are installed outdoors or in larger spaces these days, like Taryn Simon’s sculpture “The Pipes,” Martin Puryear’s “Big Bling” colossus at the museum’s southern perimeter, and James Turrell’s “C.A.V.U.,” the artist’s largest freestanding circular Skyspace yet. These installations suggest a long-term change to the museum experience, as the pandemic marks a shift toward social distancing.
Lucky for Mass MoCA, it has the largest footprint of any contemporary art museum in the US. And all that roominess will come in handy for future events and in-person experiences.
“We’re ready to have people back,” Moore said in summary. “And we’re able to do so in a spacious way.”
1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. Full event calendar at www.massmoca.org
Kyung Mi Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.