Revitalizing North Adams

Old and New Galleries Spark High Energy

By: - Jun 25, 2008

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           Talking with artists who grew up in the area they recall when as teenagers the Berkshire mill towns were booming. When the whistle blew at the end of a shift at Sprague Electric in North Adams the foot traffic was as thick as Times Square on New Year's Eve. It was a tough town and couples starting families opted for nearby Adams which has always been real sweet. There were three Catholic churches in Adams back in the day serving the local Polish, French and Irish populations. Now one priest rotates saying mass in all three churches which, remarkably, remain open.

             You hear tales of other mills now torn down as well as neighborhoods that looked like Edward Hopper paintings, as an artist described them. Kids dated at the Mohawk movie theater on Main Street. Perhaps one day it will reopen.  There was an enormous railroad station in North Adams. This architectural and cultural heritage was leveled to create a wasteland of a mall that gets too little traffic. For years there have been abandoned storefronts on Main Street, Eagle Street, and Holden Street in downtown North Adams.

              In Pittsfield, a few years back, artists appealed to landlords to let them occupy abandoned business properties as temporary studios and art galleries. The Storefront Artists Project drew national publicity and put Pittsfield on the map. When General Electric, along with other manufacturers in the Berkshires scaled back or went out of business, other than seasonal tourism, the region fell on hard times. Leaving behind all those failed small businesses and store fronts.

           Slowly the arts evolved as a strategy for economic recovery. Empty storefronts in Pittsfield are now harder to find. In a familiar pattern artists move into hard pressed but affordable neighborhoods and with a lot of sweat equity make changes that attract foot traffic and business. Rents and property values start to rise and eventually artists get priced out. Unless they invest by renovating and buying abandoned factory buildings.

               That happened in North Adams when Eric Rudd developed first the Beaver Mill, where he rents studio space to artists, and later the Eclipse Mill where some 40  loft spaces were bought by artists. It is taking time but the presence of artists is gradually changing the face and style of North Adams. There is a difficult transition as older residents remember the factories and hope for some return of industry. Given the current geography (too far from a major highway) and economics that is not going to happen. It is difficult for folks who have seen their jobs and a way of life disappear forever to accept and understand the increasing presence of artists.

               No, artists are not going to bring boom times back to the North Adams economy but they do provide a step in the right direction. Artists own and maintain formerly decaying, abandoned properties,  pay taxes, shop and dine locally, as well as send their kids to schools. Through entrepreneurship they bring new jobs and business models to the community. Of course, much of this was calculated when Tom Krens, then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art,  pitched the concept of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, to former governor, Michael Dukakis. Eventually, Mass MoCA was granted $35 million, paid down in increments, to develop the former Sprague Electric as a museum complex.  It took a leap of faith for local politicians and business leaders to sign on with this vision. In hindsight, many other cities and towns, like Lowell, Fall River and New Bedford, would love to have a Mass MoCA plugged into their struggling communities.

                While many in the depressed region expected an immediate bounce that has not been the case. Mass MoCA has helped over time but was hardly a magic wand to fix the  economy of hard pressed Northern Berkshire County. There are those who would argue that Mass MoCA has too long delayed taking a more active role in supporting and developing the business and cultural climate beyond its well defined, self contained, campus. Too often we witness tourists driving to Mass MoCA and then leaving. A tiny increment of that traffic to Mass MoCA spills over into downtown shops and restaurants.

                Starting this week, however, we hope to see a significant change in all that. Some 10,000 copies of an art map have been printed and will be distributed around town and, most significantly, to visitors of Mass MoCA who inquire about what else there is to enjoy locally.

              A couple of years ago there was little or nothing to see in North Adams. Then Mass College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) opened Gallery 51 on Main Street. A year ago the artists Jeff and Jane Hudson started North Adams Antiques next door. This winter they opened a second store Hudson's at Mass MoCA. While they mostly sell antiques and collectables the walls are covered with art, theirs and others, and they have produced a number of shows in their Main Street venue. Currently, the Hudsons are showing "Branter Deatly in Color: Recent Paintings and Etchings." Next door, Gallery 51  is showing "Terms of Surrender" by Eclipse artist, Rich Remsberg.

                Years ago, when the Contemporary Artists Center in the Beaver Mill was active its founder (with his wife Barbara) Eric Rudd was instrumental in getting art into abandoned Main Street windows. Rudd organizes a successful annual event in which, just for one day, sand is dumped on Eagle Street transforming it into an ersatz beach. In an abandoned North Adams church Rudd has created a Chapel for Humanity as well as a small venue for his work on Eagle Street.

                Johnathan Secor of MCLA has been instrumental of forming DownStreet Art, a collaboration between the city of North Adams, Mass MoCA, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, and Scarafoni Realty. Four, new, temporary spaces are opening and will be in business through October 31. Lots of other businesses and shops will remain open on Thursday, June 26 providing a lively event. On Friday night, the Eclipse Mill Gallery will open an exhibition of 3-D and relief sculpture curated by Brian Handspicker and Brian Jewett. Also, at the Eclipse Mill, Ralph Brill recently discussed plans for an ambitious show of nude photography that will open soon in his gallery. On Saturday, the Kolok Gallery, in the Windsor Mill, will have a reception for the artist, and master print maker, Brandon Graving.

                    So there will be a ton of buzz and action this week. What fun. The other day we walked about to chat with artists who were swinging brushes and banging nails. We caught up with ceramic artist and curator Dianne Sullivan. Previously she was director of the Eclipse Mill Gallery and Secor invited her to set up a temporary cooperative gallery. "We have 16 members paying $40 a month," Sullivan said. "But we don't take any commission on sales. There will also be an area of Consignment artists which will change regularly and the commission on those sales will be 50%." Many of the artists in the Coop are familiar but there are also fresh names and faces several of whom are familiar from Open Studios and the recent Berkshire Salon in the Eclipse Mill Gallery. The artists include:  Kay Canavino, Sharon Carson, Cynthia Lewis, Laura Christensen, Deborah Combs, Karen Combs, Carmen Cuccia, Andrew Davis, Martha Flood, Jen Flores, Jaye Fox, Emily Gold, Barry Goldstein, Karen Kane, Leslie Kearsley, Erin Ko, Steve Levin, Susan Manley, Barbara May, Melanie Mowinski, Lisa Nilsson, Debi Pendell, Sarah Pike, Greg Scheckler, Diane Sullivan, Thor Wickstrom, Julie Wigg, Rodney Wilkinson, Colleen Williams and Mary Wright.

                  At 73 Main Street when we visited a couple of artists were busy installing the many toys collected by Jarvis Rockwell on a stepped pyramid called "Maya III." The first time the artist, son of illustrator, Norman Rockwell, showed this was at Mass MoCA. It was then shown in Arizona and returns this summer to North Adams, The piece was much enjoyed by children of all ages at Mass MoCA.

                In the MCLA Annex Gallery, at 65 Main Street, Marianne Petit and Matthew Belanger, partners in Greylock Arts, at 93 Summer Street, in Adams, are installing "Lumens." There are now 100 lamps in the North Adams space and they hope to borrow some 150. The project, which is partly funded by the Warhol Foundation, the Lef Foundation, and the Mass Council, aspires to connect the spaces and communities in Adams and North Adams. Matt told us that the piece will not officially open this week but there will be a "preview" demonstration. The actual unveiling will occur on July 9 from 6 to 9 PM.

                Recently, Jason Morin moved his Media X Productions into a space at 71 Main Street which he has named IO Gallery. With his partner, Jennifer Goodhind, they are promoting "affordable" local art including a popular $10 table. One might safely say that they represent a tiny increment of the booming $25 billion art market. There is also an window of "affordable" small, framed, photographs displayed by Papyri Books at 45 Eagle Street.
                  There is a group of young artists working on installing the Sol Lewitt wall paintings at Mass MoCA who are showing their own work in a space on Holden Street. We looked for them but were informed that they are only around at night after their day gig at Mass MoCA.

                   Walking around town there were signs of life but it is still tough to make a living as an artist in North Adams. Once thriving Eagle Street is struggling. Molly's Bakery, which was established in 1937, has recently closed. The former space of Joga Café will reopen as The Alley with live but not too loud music. We chatted with artist Dan Field of Widgitz on Eagle Street. He was putting some final touches on works to be displayed during the gala round of openings this week. With some irony he speculated how folks would manage to absorb all that art on display.

                 Taking a break we dropped in at Cup and Saucer a popular hangout for artists. Allison chatted and served up a steamy cup of joe. Outside, at a small table with a couple of chairs, we had a chin wag with local collector and historian Darrell English. He discussed progress on the effort of Ralph Brill to launch an Art of World War II Museum. If it gets off the ground the museum will include objects from his vast collection.

                   By just a quick tally there will be a dozen or so venues showing contemporary art in North Adams this summer. There is an affordable and fun new restaurant on Main Street, The Hub. The news this week is that Jae's is abandoning his restaurant in upscale Williamstown and heading back to North Adams where he belongs. Starting next week at his old digs Jae's Inn. We welcome him back and will drop by soon. He is also developing Jae's Spice which will open soon in Pittsfield.

              Is it happening for North Adams? Ask us in October when the temporary leases for those new galleries expire. But, we've come a long way baby. Eventually, we might have some benches on Main Street. Like Paris in the summer when life spills out onto the sidewalk cafes. It sure would be nice just to hang out down town and chat a bit. Wouldn't that be terrific? Well, maybe next year.