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Mass MoCA unveils expansive vision

Joe Thompson, founding director of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, stood in front of the soon-to-be-restored Building 6 on the North Adams campus. Nancy Palmieri for the Boston Globe

A Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art expansion in 2017 will give it more exhibition space than any contemporary art museum in the country, and with the new space will come a lineup of long-term installations by big-name artists.

Governor Deval Patrick plans to speak at a press conference on Monday at the museum, which has raised $13.5 million of a goal of $30 million in private funds, in addition to a $25.4 million state grant announced earlier this year.

Mass MoCA is doubling its already vast gallery space to 250,000 square feet on its North Adams campus, mainly by renovating Building 6, a structure so large that each of its three floors covers an acre. Mass MoCA, which has recycled old textile buildings into a series of cavernous galleries, is also offering a new model for museums: creating exhibits that will be on view for 15 to 25 years. Artists or their foundations — not Mass MoCA — will still own the work.

“They provide the art, on loan, and together we show it,” said director Joseph C. Thompson. “It’s rather unusual.”


Mass MoCA’s “campus of museums,” as the museum describes it, will include installations of work by artist Robert Rauschenberg, multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, light artist James Turrell, and instrument-maker Gunnar Schonbeck. The new galleries are scheduled to open in late May 2017.

The model for such long-term exhibits was pioneered at Mass MoCA by a giant Sol LeWitt installation that opened in 2008. The exhibit of 107 wall drawings — over three stories and 27,000 square feet — will remain open until 2033.

It took 60 artists and art students six months to install LeWitt’s massive, often colorful pieces.

“Once you go to all that expense and hard work, you might as well leave them up for a long time,” Thompson said.

Another large installation opened at Mass MoCA in 2013: The museum renovated an old concrete water tank and turned it into a 10,000-square-foot gallery of installations by German artist Anselm Kiefer, in a partnership with the Hall Art Foundation.


“It’s quite unlike any other museum in the country,” said Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, which collaborated with Mass MoCA and the Williams College Museum of Art on the LeWitt installation.

In a statement, Patrick said he was proud “to fund the $25 million for the expansion of Mass MoCA, which will not only benefit North Adams, but the region as a whole.”

With the next round of renovations, the museum’s 250,000 square feet of exhibition space will be more than the 240,000 square feet at New York State’s Dia: Beacon, in the Hudson River Valley, which was previously hailed as the largest museum of contemporary art in the country. Overall, Mass MoCA’s campus will cover about 540,000 square feet, with only one significant building not renovated.

Mass MoCA plans to use the newly renovated space for the kind of art — large works, some of them heavy, many of them difficult to install — that fits well into Mass MoCA’s unusual space.

“Most museums are beautiful white boxes. Abstract, clean, perfectly proportioned boxes,” Thompson said. “That’s not what Mass MoCA is. The character of the buildings here is strong. They’re vernacular, raw, industrial buildings. They’re not the kind of place where a show of small framed paintings works perfectly.”

One of the six new exhibits will display marble sculptures by Bourgeois, including some that have never been shown. They are so heavy — at least one weighs 15 tons — that even the floors of Mass MoCA’s industrial buildings, which once supported heavy machinery, need to be reinforced with steel. Workers will cut holes in the walls to bring in the sculptures.


Bourgeois’s dense art, installed in partnership with the Easton Foundation, creates a “poetic juxtaposition,” Thompson said, with the work of James Turrell.

Turrell, who uses pure light to alter viewers’ perception, will install nine works at the museum. He is creating one of his dramatic Ganzfeld pieces — based on the loss of depth perception — specifically for Mass MoCA, becoming the first ever on long-term public view in North America.

“There are no detectable edges,” Thompson said. “You can’t see where the wall meets the floor. There’s something about that that’s spiritually moving and kinetically powerful.”

Turrell will also create a “skyspace” observatory from an abandoned fire-suppression water tank. Also outside, the museum is adding a system of bike paths, including a bikeable passageway through one of the buildings, and new bridges across the Hoosic River.

Since Mass MoCA devotes a lot of effort to performing arts, Thompson and others wanted to bring in Laurie Anderson, who defies easy categories.

“She’s hard to pin down,” Thompson said. “She’s a visual artist for sure, but she’s also a musician. She makes her own instruments. She’s also a prop designer.”

Anderson’s installation will include a production studio and broadcasting space, along with audio/visual galleries.

“It’s a really interesting place to do public work that lasts more than a couple weeks or a couple months,” she said in a recent interview.


Anderson said she has “many, many ideas” for her installation, which will probably include some large paintings. But she’s especially excited about one nascent idea for her exhibit, which will be called Radio Anderson.

“[Thompson] said, ‘What do you fantasize about?’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Having a late-night radio show,’ ” she said. “Like 2 to 4 a.m., for my fellow insomniacs.”

Holzer’s installation will include light projections of poetry by various authors, carved stone benches, and electronic signs.

As for Rauschenberg, the museum will collaborate with the Rauschenberg Foundation to display not only his work but also work by artists who spend time at the foundation’s Captiva Island residency program in Florida.

In a collaboration with Bang on a Can, the music consortium, there will be space where musicians and visitors can play the handmade instruments of Schonbeck, a new-music composer.

The new installations could remain at Mass MoCA even longer, Thompson said, with future negotiations. When he, LeWitt, and Reynolds talked about how long LeWitt’s work should remain on exhibit there, they agreed to display it through 2033.

“We figured we’d be close to dead and gone by then,” Reynolds said. “We figured we’d let other people decide whether to extend.”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.