NORTH ADAMS — Making his way through a crew of workers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, director Joseph C. Thompson grabbed a lamp to illuminate a work by the artist James Turrell, one of nine pieces the artist is crafting for the museum’s newly renovated wing, known as Building 6.
When it opens in May, Building 6 will place Mass MoCA among the largest contemporary art museums in the country.
“This is obviously a terrible demonstration,” said Thompson, rounding a corner to see the lamp’s harsh light on the partially installed work. The whole room, he explained, should feel “like the inside of a cloud — nothing but light. There’s an immense amount of work that goes into making it look like nothing’s there.”
Thirty years after founding Mass MoCA, Thompson spends a lot of time these days describing the works that will soon fill Building 6, the latest step in the museum’s long-term strategy to transform its campus of former mill buildings into an international destination for contemporary visual and performing arts.
“We’re roughly doubling the exhibition space, but I think to visitors it will feel like we’ve quadrupled the total campus,” said Thompson, referring to Building 6 and other recently opened smaller structures. “It’s a big improvement.”
The hulking three-story Building 6 — each floor measures roughly an acre — will deliver more than 105,000 square feet of new gallery space, giving Mass MoCA roughly 250,000 square feet of exhibition space across its museum’s 16-acre campus.
But the overall project — funded with $25.4 million from the state and $40 million in private donations — does something else as well: It marks the apotheosis of Thompson’s strategy to fill the sprawling museum with exhibitions of large-scale works by well-known artists that can last for decades.
“These are big, brawny, American vernacular buildings,” said Thompson. “They need a certain kind of art that can stand up to the toughness of the space.”
None more so than Building 6, an irregularly shaped structure rich in exposed brick, steel beams, and maple flooring. Sitting at the western edge of Mass MoCA’s campus, its walls taper to conform with the north and south forks of the Hoosic River.
For more than a year, construction crews have been removing columns and portions of floor to create double-height galleries and event spaces. They’ve cut holes in walls to bring in massive works of art via crane and forklift. They’ve restored a huge lightwell, and they’ve removed and re-mortared more than 5,000 bricks in the 19th-century building.
“We put screws in the floor. We cut holes in the walls. We rip the windows out and bring things in through the windows,” said deputy director Larry Smallwood. “Whatever we need to do.”
The renovation has largely been covered by the state’s contribution, which Smallwood said has totaled about $168 per square foot.
“That’s the shell of the building, it won’t be a museum yet,” said Smallwood, who added that museum staff were doing a lot of the finish work. “We’re the painting contractors. We’re the window contractors on the whole campus. That’s how it gets done for that amount of money.”
With just two months before Building 6 opens, Mass MoCA crews are now spending their days polishing floors, painting walls, vacuuming dust, and re-mortaring delinquent bricks in preparation for the art that will soon fill its 2½ acres of gallery space.
Jason Forney, a principal with the Cambridge-based architectural firm that designed the renovations, Bruner/Cott & Associates, said they approached Building 6 as a “landscape.”
“We treated it almost as an outside space,” said Forney, whose firm has designed nearly all of Mass MoCA’s renovations over the years. “We think of them as museums within a museum landscape.”
To fill these smaller “museums,” Mass MoCA has entered long-term partnerships to exhibit works by Turrell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, and former Bennington College music professor Gunnar Schonbeck.
The partnerships, which range in time from 15 to 25 years, are modeled on Mass MoCA’s 25-year arrangement with the estate of Sol LeWitt and the Yale University Art Gallery to display 105 of the artist’s large-scale wall drawings across nearly an acre of wall space in Building 7. Per the arrangement, Mass MoCA does not own the works, which remain the property of other parties.
For Thompson, the 2008 LeWitt collaboration was a turning point for the museum, which has no permanent collection.
“It was as if we suddenly found our lungs,” he said. “Up until that time we were always as good as our last show. . . . The entire museum changed every year, and suddenly, having that monumental, historically important LeWitt in our midst, it became this kind of center of gravity.”
Some of the new work for Building 6 has already arrived: An archipelago of large Rauschenberg silkscreens wrapped in plastic creates a labyrinth-like space across the galleries. A pair of huge marble sculptures by Bourgeois stand upon a structurally reenforced floor. Turrell’s Texas crew has been on location for months building his installations, which use light and space to create otherworldly environments. And the eccentric musical instruments of Schonbeck — including a stand-up bass banjo and marimba fit for a giant — lay spread across the floor awaiting restoration.
Meanwhile, the galleries for Holzer and Anderson remain vacant.
“Jenny’s getting closer to knowing what [her exhibition] is,” Thompson said with a sigh. “I’d say Jenny and Laurie are still working on their programs.”
Unlike the LeWitt exhibition, which will remain intact until 2033, several of the long-term arrangements for Building 6 allow the artists to change the work they display through the years. The Rauschenberg galleries will include rotating exhibitions by artists at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Captiva Island, Fla., residency program. Anderson’s galleries will incorporate virtual reality and a production studio where visitors can watch the artist create new work, and Holzer is expected periodically to exhibit new pieces in her galleries.
Building 6 also has support facilities for the museum’s performing arts programs, which Thompson says are equally important to visual arts at Mass MoCA. The building’s long-term exhibition spaces will also be punctuated by new galleries for temporary exhibitions.
“There are a lot of other artists whose work you’re going to see who are new and young,” said Thompson. “We’ll continue to do that.”
In fact, he added, Mass MoCA is adding roughly 30,000 square feet in temporary exhibitions galleries — a space he compared to the former home of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue.
“One way of looking at it is we’re adding a Whitney,” said Thompson. “Our curatorial fleet is not going anywhere.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.