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Can a year-round arts scene and a giant model train museum save Western Mass.?

The creative culture’s roots run deep in the Berkshires, where manufacturing once ruled. It may be the ticket forward for the region’s economy.

Choreographer Kyle Abraham and his A.I.M. dance company (left) were in residence at Jacob’s Pillow in the winter of 2018.  Mass. MoCA’s Building 6 (middle) undergoing restoration in 2014. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (right top), and the Tourists motel outside North Adams.
Choreographer Kyle Abraham and his A.I.M. dance company (left) were in residence at Jacob’s Pillow in the winter of 2018. Mass. MoCA’s Building 6 (middle) undergoing restoration in 2014. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (right top), and the Tourists motel outside North Adams. (Abraham by Tatiana Wills; Mass MoCA by Nancy Palmieri; Clark by Matthew Cavanaugh/Globe file; Tourists by John Dolan)

In the Becket mountaintop home of Jacob’s Pillow, choreographer Faye Driscoll has covered half of a rehearsal studio floor with dozens of images: black-and-white photos of screaming Beatles fans and color reproductions of the desperate castaways of Theodore Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa. Standing at a microphone in their midst, she breathes into it, then creates an audio loop of the sound, repeating and amplifying it until it fills the room like a heartbeat. The rhythm, along with the emotions in the images, will inspire her first major solo work. She’ll be performing an in-progress version of it at the Pillow a few days later.

During the annual summer tourism rush to the lovely green hills of Berkshire County, tens of thousands of people come to Becket to watch performances at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. What’s unusual about Driscoll’s piece is that she’s performing it in February.

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Founded on a former farm 86 years ago by revolutionary choreographer Ted Shawn, the dance festival once went mostly dark outside of the summer. That changed after January 2016, when Pamela Tatge took over as the festival’s director. At the time, the Pillow was in planning stages for the $5.5 million Perles Family Studio, designed to house a summer dance school. Tatge wanted to see the Perles used year-round. In September 2017, she launched the Pillow Lab, where artists like Driscoll, a 43-year-old from New York who won the $25,000 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in 2018, are brought in for extended residencies that include offseason performances.

Tatge, who directed Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts for 16 years, has boosted the Pillow’s operating budget by 18 percent and its year-round staffing by roughly a quarter, to 38. She has raised a noteworthy $1.7 million in grants to support the Pillow’s expansion across the calendar and in the region. The grants pay for, among other things, a Saturday shuttle meant to bring audiences from Pittsfield, the postindustrial city that is the heart of Berkshire County, to the Pillow after public transit stops. The money also supports artists’ residencies and Pillow pop-up performances around the county — at workshops and dance battles, through programs in schools and at the Boys & Girls Club, and at events such as Pittsfield’s 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival in February.

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To be relevant in the Berkshires, Tatge says, the Pillow needs to be talking with the community — and acting in it. In November, she and Berkshire County’s NAACP brought together community members and Pillow artist-in-residence Kyle Abraham and his dance company, A.I.M. Abraham — the choreographer and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner — is developing a major work on Black love. The group sat in J. Allen’s Clubhouse Grille in downtown Pittsfield and, over games of whist, spades, and tonk, talked about love and relationships across generations in the black community. A few days later, the locals were in the audience watching a performance of the piece in progress at the Pillow.

Pamela Tatge has expanded the Jacob’s Pillow season since she took over as director in 2016.
Pamela Tatge has expanded the Jacob’s Pillow season since she took over as director in 2016. (Joanna Chattman for the Boston Globe)

It’s just over an hour’s driveup Route 8 from Jacob’s Pillow to North Adams. Yet North Adams native Abigail Wood Meczywor had never heard of the Pillow until she went to college at Williams. Three years ago, she became the dance festival’s director of marketing and communications. “I never thought I’d be able to find a job like this in the Berkshires,” she says. People in her hometown now know about the Pillow, too. Many of them have gone to a free outdoor tap dance performance in summer or come to a show when the Pillow offered tickets to every student in their child’s dance class. Wood Meczywor believes Berkshire natives today feel connected to the Pillow in a way she did not as a child.

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Tatge says she’s looking to the Berkshires region not just for audiences but for staff, food purveyors, and other resources, noting, “We are citizens of Berkshire County, and our success is swept up in its [success].”

Berkshire County needs a boost. Its population has shrunk by about 16 percent since 1970, while Massachusetts overall has gained 20 percent, or 1.2 million people. The local economy has followed an arc common across America, as farming moved to manufacturing, and manufacturing moved away. Now, in the 21st century, art is helping to rebuild it.

All around the Berkshires, venerable arts organizations are extending their calendars past summer’s high tourism season. In Williamstown, the Clark Art Institute expanded a year-round performance space in 2016 and ramped up the number of fall-to-spring exhibitions. The Berkshire Botanical Garden spent $2.3 million to renovate its Center House, including adding an art gallery, to hold events throughout the year. Later this month the Boston Symphony Orchestra will debut the four buildings of the $33 million Linde Center, its first year-round facilities at Tanglewood in Lenox.

“The economy of the Berkshires has declined, and what is making it come back is the creative economy — there is no doubt about that,” says Olivier Meslay, the Clark’s director.

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What’s emerging here is what Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard calls “the experiential economy.” At its core, he says, are cultural organizations, education, food, the outdoors, and wellness resorts such as Kripalu in Stockbridge. Together, they helped spur $517 million in tourism spending in Berkshire County in 2018, almost quadruple the amount spent a decade earlier. Arts and culture organizations had faster hiring growth — more than 9.5 percent — than any other economic sector in the county between 2010 and 2017.

The regional economic development group 1Berkshire reports that cultural and creative organizations directly employ 5,450 people in the county. Add food and tourism (primarily spending on lodging) and the experience economy accounted for more than 20,000 jobs and almost $1.2 billion in wages, taxes, investments, and profits in 2017, exceeding manufacturing’s $917 million.

All told, state and local government and private groups have invested more than $1 billion in the county in the last three years. The money will yield universal broadband access in 2020, fixing a longstanding problem. A digital manufacturing innovation center will open later this year. A new train, the Berkshire Flyer, will give tourists from New York a comfortable commute on summer weekends starting in 2020.

The Linde Center for Music and Learning was built to house the brand-new, year-round Tanglewood Learning Institute and its more than 140 programs.
The Linde Center for Music and Learning was built to house the brand-new, year-round Tanglewood Learning Institute and its more than 140 programs. (Winslow Townson)

On a cold day in February, leaders from the region’s civic, arts, and business worlds fill Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre to hear about 1Berkshire’s Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, a 10-year economic development plan. From the stage, John Bissell, part of the Blueprint’s leadership and president of Greylock Federal Credit Union, reminds the audience of the big plan in the early 2000s: replace the Colonial with a parking lot. “The seats you are sitting in did not exist,” he says. “Where you now see beautiful gold leaf, I saw 50 years of grime and decay. That gorgeous ceiling looked like it might fall in on us. And pigeons were flying in and out of this back wall right behind me.”

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The refurbished Colonial now anchors a resurgent downtown Pittsfield, which has been transformed since 2008. Once-empty buildings were renovated and revitalized by the Barrington Stage Company, the Beacon Cinema, and Hotel on North. The Barrington’s 10x10 festival of plays brings sell-out crowds in the dead of February, and it sparked the related Upstreet Arts festival, which just completed its eighth year. A year-round farmers market launched in 2013 in the Boys & Girls Club and is now in Zion Lutheran Church.

Bissell, 51, grew up in Dalton. His father spent 30 years as an engineer at the old GE plant. “I felt the trauma of the loss from GE and Sprague shutting down,” he tells the crowd, reminding them of the 1970s and 1980s, when GE was shedding most of its 10,000 local workers. Bissell moved to Seattle and worked as an executive at a large advertising agency, but in 2000, after 10 years away, he and his wife brought their children back home. Manufacturing remains a key part of the Berkshire Blueprint, but so are the arts, tourism, and food. The unspoken hope is to reverse almost 70 years of decline.

As Bissell looks around the Colonial, he says, “It often seemed impossible, but now, look at this magnificent place.”

From Pittsfield, Route 8 parallels the Hoosic River up to North Adams, the state’s smallest city, population 12,904. Where Route 8 meets Route 2, the overpass is painted with lapis-blue Egyptian winged spirits, and murals cover the brick walls of downtown buildings. The old mills in North Adams are getting makeovers, too. The Greylock Mill, where cotton was once spun, reopened as a conference and festival center three years ago. Just this winter, the Norad Mill, which made woolen textiles and then housed printing operations, reopened as a marketplace, fully leased even in the era of e-commerce. Among its 45 tenants are a local maker of meads and berry wines, a coffee roaster, and a yarn dyer who moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area.

North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard was 14 in 1985, when Sprague Electric closed. He understands his city’s deeply felt identity as a manufacturing community as well as blue-collar Berkshire families’ fears of displacement. But the region’s expanding creative economy has local roots, too, he says, and grows out of native ingenuity and skill: “We’re still talking about making. It’s another kind of making.”

Driving the turnaround was Mass MoCA, which drew more than 300,000 visitors last year to its galleries in the former Sprague Electric facility, where thousands once produced electronic components. The museum opened in 1999 (disclosure: I was a summer intern at Mass MoCA that year) with 90,000 square feet. After the opening of Building 6 in 2017, it now occupies 250,000 square feet, making it the largest contemporary art museum in the United States. Joseph Thompson, the museum’s director, notes that back in 2010, when it began hosting Wilco’s Solid Sound music and arts festival, he searched for Airbnbs in the city and found five. Now that search yields more than 300.

Thompson, a Williams College alum who has led Mass MoCA from its founding, says the past few years have brought a distinctly different vibe here. Where older generations look at empty mills and run-down Victorians and see what used to be, younger generations see opportunities: a house that needs some sweat equity going for $125,000 or a studio a short walk from downtown. “And that’s new,” he says.

Last winter, Wilco bassist John Stirratt, Berkshire entrepreneur Eric Kerns, and three partners gutted an old roadside motel and turned it into an ecofriendly lodge, Tourists. They reoriented it to face the Hoosic River instead of the road. A suspension bridge across the river leads to the Chime Chapel, a playable sculpture.

Stirratt says he hadn’t been west of Northampton before Wilco started performing at Mass MoCA. “I caught the Berkshire magic,” he says. “The harmony with nature and cultural investment is so unique.”

After restoring a two-century-old farmhouse next to the motel, in February Stirratt and his partners opened the Airport Rooms restaurant, run by a chef from Austin, Texas. At various points this winter, people could walk into the restaurant or the lodge and hear informal sets by the likes of indy rocker Michael Nau or Bob Mould’s bassist, Jason Narducy, who performed in exchange for a room at Tourists. “Lodging can be tough on the road for bands,” Stirratt says by phone from Australia, on tour with Ray LaMontagne.

A much bigger plan is forming in some weathered clapboard buildings in Western Gateway Heritage Park, at the southern edge of downtown North Adams. This is the current home base of the proposed Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum. When built, it will have 9 miles of track, a control room larger than the one at Penn Station, augmented reality, high-def theaters, and a 37-foot-tall scale model of the Empire State Building, among other architectural icons.

A master plan for North Adams features Zhu Pei’s bullet-train-shaped Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (top center).
A master plan for North Adams features Zhu Pei’s bullet-train-shaped Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (top center). (From EMRCA)

It’s the latest brainchild of cultural entrepreneur Thomas Krens. Krens conceived and helped found Mass MoCA 30 years ago, when he directed the Williams College Museum of Art, before moving to New York to run the Guggenheim Museum. He led the Guggenheim’s international expansion — including its landmark offshoot in Bilbao, Spain, which has had 22 million visitors since it opened in 1997. Krens came back to Berkshire County for family reasons and says he saw opportunities to do something new.

His first public presentation of his plans draws hundreds of people — town officials, curious locals, journalists, and more — to the Clark’s auditorium on a frigid Sunday afternoon in February.

What Krens outlines is hugely ambitious: 750,000 visitors a year coming not just to architect Zhu Pei’s sleek, silvery model railroad museum along the Hoosic, but also to a museum of time in Heritage Park and a Richard Gluckman-designed Global Contemporary Art Museum, built in what is now a strip mall. He envisions the long-dormant Mohawk Theater on Main Street remade by Frank Gehry into a black-box performance space with advanced sound technology that can alter the acoustics for a symphony or a rock concert, and a 110-room hotel designed by Jean Nouvel. All of this, he says, will “make North Adams the number one cultural and recreational tourism destination in the country.”

Outlandish? Perhaps. But Krens reminds his audience that when he and Thompson proposed converting Sprague Electric into Mass MoCA, the idea “seemed preposterous at the time. No one thought it would work. Now it is an incredible success.”

James Jarzyniecki (left) and Ben Sosne look at a map of cultural attractions in North Adams and Williamstown that includes proposed projects, among them the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum intended for North Adams.
James Jarzyniecki (left) and Ben Sosne look at a map of cultural attractions in North Adams and Williamstown that includes proposed projects, among them the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum intended for North Adams.(Shannon Young/The Republican)

Sheppard, the Williams College economist, projects that the model railroad museum by itself could bring up to $191 million a year, and 1,400 to 2,000 jobs, to the community. Krens has raised more than $3.5 million in planning and development funds and has brought in Skanska USA and the Gilbane Building Co. to develop the project, targeting a 2021 opening. Local artists and model makers are already creating the landscapes for the trains, and Krens expects to double his staff to 16 employees this year. His chief designer, James Jarzyniecki, relocated to North Adams from Brooklyn three years ago with his partner, Mandy Johnson, and their architectural design and fabrication studio, JZJN. Jarzyniecki and Johnson bought a house in North Adams and started the Outside art gallery.

“The thing I found amazing, and I couldn’t have felt without living here, is that a [creative] community already exists here,” Jarzyniecki says.

In late March, when Zhu Pei comes to look at the site meant for his museum, he takes the train from Syracuse, New York, where he had given a lecture at the university. Riding past scenic valleys and struggling towns helped him understand that this project is more than a building. “If this succeeds,” he says, “it will be a model to revive industrial cities . . . and give them life.”

Correction: This story was updated on June 7 to correct the last name of Olivier Meslay, the director of the Clark Art Institute.


Katherine Abbott is a freelance writer in Williamstown. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.