TWO WEEKS AGO, the immersive art museum Mass MoCA in North Adams opened a monumental new facility known as Building 6, adding 130,000 square feet of exhibition and performance space and transforming a former industrial brownfields site into the largest contemporary art museum in the country. Stunning new installations by art superstars Laurie Anderson and James Turrell are packing in visitors. The repurposing of the former Sprague Electric Works, designed by the Cambridge architecture firm Bruner/Cott in all its rough-hewn magnificence, has met with rapturous reviews. It’s “a museum where giant art has room to breathe,” enthused The New York Times.
It was not always thus. In 1988 the Massachusetts Legislature was debating a $35 million bond to purchase the defunct Sprague mills so they could be converted into the museum. Several House members found the idea an outlandish boondoggle mostly intended to boost the presidential fortunes of then-governor Michael Dukakis. “I don’t know how many of you have bothered to look at a map,” Holden state Representative Mary Jane McKenna told her colleagues during the debate, “but North Adams is about as far north and west in Massachusetts as you can get.”
McKenna, who later became (irony alert!) the state’s director of tourism, was not alone in her skepticism that an edgy art museum in such a remote rural area could hope to attract the 100,000 visitors a year it supporters promised. But powerful political forces — combined with artistic visionaries like Thomas Krens, who went on to direct New York’s Guggenheim Museum — were determined to pursue the experiment in a region of the state long ignored on Beacon Hill. Last year, Mass MoCA clocked 165,000 visitors and generated $22 million for the regional economy.
The idea that creative human capital — artists, makers, engineers — can revive aging cities is now so imbedded in urban planning circles that it is starting to provoke its own backlash. Even urbanist guru Richard Florida, who coined the term “creative class’’ in 2002, has a new book out that finds darker effects of inequality and gentrification in the movement of young, affluent “creatives” to older cities.
North Adams doesn’t have that problem. At its peak, Sprague employed 4,000 local residents; Mass MoCA by itself only provides about 65 full-time jobs. After Sprague shut down, in 1985, the unemployment rate in North Adams was 14 percent. Now it’s 6.4 percent, but still far above the state average. The town’s population in 2015 was 13,263 — a 21 percent drop since 1990. The place is no one’s idea of Brooklyn. Not yet.
Local officials are working to lure visitors off the museum’s campus into downtown. Many new attractions, such as the Bright Ideas brewery, are confined to the 16 acres bounded by the mill buildings. There are town-gown tensions. Locals worry that most Mass MoCA visitors spend the bulk of their time and money elsewhere in the Berkshires.
Still, North Adams is beginning to earn a reputation as a cultural mecca in its own right. Galleries and restaurants are opening. Property values are slowly increasing. The bass guitarist for the band Wilco — which is in partnership with Mass MoCA’s Solid Sound festival — has invested in an old-time motor court that has seen better days, hoping to attract millennials with its retro vibe and outdoor recreation along the Hoosic River.
Back in 1988, North Adams looked to Mass MoCA with an almost desperate hope for salvation. “There is every reason to believe that a miracle is well on the way in these hills,” read an editorial in The North Adams Transcript, itself now defunct. That may have seemed overly evangelical. But Mass MoCA proves that to save a city as badly injured as North Adams, you need money, vision — and a prodigious amount of faith.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.