The Contemporary Arts Center, MASS MoCA, Expands Within Its Historic Campus
This weekend, MASS MoCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts, will unveil its newest set of galleries in the 16-acre complex of former textile mill buildings that the contemporary arts center has incrementally been expanding into since it first opened in 1999. The $55 million project nearly doubles the institution’s exhibition space to 240,000 square feet and adds new visitor amenities, art fabrication workshops, and support facilities for music festivals and other outdoor events. With the completion of the project, MASS MoCA will have renovated almost all of the 28 historic red brick buildings on its sprawling campus in mostly rural Berkshire County. The aim of this latest phase of construction, like that of the earlier ones, was “the economic and smart transformation of industrial structures into hospitable places for art” says Joseph Thompson, MASS MoCA’s director.
This most recent expansion houses a series of long-term installations and collaborations with artists and organizations, including Laurie Anderson, James Turrell, Jenny Holzer, the Louise Bourgeois Trust, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and the estate of Gunnar Schonbeck. The just-renovated three-story wing, known as Building 6, sits at the western edge of the MASS MoCA complex, with a triangular footprint shaped by the confluence of the north and south branches of the Hoosic River. Designed by Cambridge-based Bruner/Cott & Associates—the same firm responsible for the two previous phases of renovation as well as the campus master plan—the new space completes a long-envisioned circulation route that Thompson describes as a “big, gracious infinity loop across the entire campus.” Previously, visitors had to backtrack and travel through galleries they had already viewed in order to return to the main lobby.
Within Building 6, Bruner/Cott took advantage of an existing 140-foot-long, 20-foot-wide light well, transforming it into a circulation spine and orientation device. The firm demolished small rooms that had accrued in this slotlike space over the years, bridged over it with walkways, and covered the previously open-air court with a skylight. In addition, the architects exploited the 19th century masonry and timber building’s oddly shaped plan by creating a dramatic double-height room for social gatherings and relaxing in the prowlike western end. Here they removed part of a floor and added a generously sized window that offers a view of the Berkshire and Taconic mountains.
Much of the art is displayed against the tough backdrop of worn (but refinished) pine floors, patched brick walls, and heavy timber beams, rather than in traditional white-walled galleries. But some of the work required constructing what Bruner/Cott founding principal Simeon Bruner calls “galleries within a gallery.” These enclosed rooms offer museum-quality temperature and humidity controls as well as protection from daylight. Otherwise it would have been nearly impossible to provide such environmental conditions within the old structure, says Bruner.
As for the rest of the campus, only one of the MASS MoCA’s 28 buildings has yet to be renovated. Thompson is full of ideas, including housing, artists’ live-work spaces, as well as additional galleries. But he’s not in a hurry. He’s going to take his time and settle into this latest expansion first.