The Arts Redefine North Adams

Mass MoCA, Wilco, Down Street, and Tons More

By: - Jun 26, 2010

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It has taken time and buckets of sweat equity but the dream of transforming North Adams into a diverse and vibrant arts community is finally happening.

A huge difference this season is being felt with the impact of a new Mayor in Dick Alcombright. In a relatively brief time since taking office in January there has been a break in the log jam at City Hall.

Take benches along Main Street for example. Former Mayor John Barrett, III , just wouldn’t have them.

Guess what. This summer we have benches. Some $10,000 has been raised from donors with no cost to the city and its tax payers.

Driving by last night we saw a couple  sitting and hanging out. What a sight for sore eyes. Everyone is talking about the benches as symbols of much needed change for the community. Come on down town. Sit a minute and enjoy a chin wag with your neighbors.

For the third season those empty downtown store fronts have been turned into a plethora of art galleries. The official Down Street map lists 35 destinations for arts and tourism. The walking  and trolley tours stretch from Mass MoCA and the North Adams Museum of History and Science through Mainstreet and  side venues along Holden, Church and Eagle Streets. The arts tour continues out to Route Two, with an installation  by Pepon Osorio in an old car dealership, then on to the Windsor Mill, MOAMA Mill, Eclipse Mill, and Beaver Mill.

All those mills from Sprague to Beaver used to employ factory workers. Now they are transformed into artist/ loft live work spaces and galleries.

The dream started decades ago when Tom Krens, then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art, pitched former Governor Mike Dukakis on the idea of transforming the dead in the water Sprague Electric campus into one of the three largest sites for contemporary art in North America. Mass MoCA is celebrating its 11th season and this summer will blow the cover off the ball with its Wilco Festival August 13 to 15.

The word is there isn’t a bed to be had in the Northern Berkshires for that blockbuster weekend. Wilco and friends have booked Porches. Seems that some of the locals are planning to earn a buck letting some of  the 8,000 anticipated rock fans park on their lawns or turn their homes into under the table Bed and Breakfast places. There is discussion of creating temporary camping grounds and the official ones at Lake Windsor sold out in an eye blink. The Mayor and Mass MoCA have been busting hump working on logistics. There will be outlying parking lots and shuttle buses. If the event is successful there is talk that Wilco will come back next year.

Most significantly, Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, is throwing his shoulder to the wheel and helping to drive the engine to bring cultural tourism and much needed income to a down on its heels local economy.

The big question has been how to get those 150,000 or so annual visitors to Mass MoCA to spend more time exploring North Adams and leaving behind their dollars at local hotels, inns, shops and restaurants. The artists in town sure would like to make some sales.

Having those 8,000 rock fans is a huge step in the right direction. Wilco is selling wrist bands good for the weekend. That means all those folks will be hanging out and looking to take breaks and pit stops. They might catch a show at the Williamstown Theatre Festival or the incredible Picasso/ Degas show at the Clark Art Institute. Perhaps a beer and burger at the Freight Yard,  The Hub on Main Street,  dinner at Grammercy Bistro at MoCA, or spaghetti at Red Sauce.

One issue has been signage. How to let visitors know what’s available and direct traffic through the city?. Mayor Barrett had a phobia about signs. Only black and gold on Main Street. Neon was deemed vulgar and the work of the devil. Keep the town pretty was the mantra. And dead after sundown.

Now signs are popping up. And  nifty ideas, like bright green footsteps stenciled on the sidewalk to keep the traffic flowing. Or catch the city owned trolley and hop on for a free ride.

There’s a lot going on from now through October with the ever popular Open Studios as well as the Fall Foliage Parade. This weekend is the annual Food Festival. Later, Community Day. Eric Rudd hosts his annual Beach Party on Eagle Street, Friday, July 9. This year when the toddlers are put to bed Eagle Street will host an outdoor Margarita party. Gallerist Ralph Brill has organized the Third Annual River Lights event for Saturday, August 14.

This past week the renowned Sidewalk Sam was in town for a planning meeting.  He discussed ideas for an ambitious project next summer. The concept is to transform the Mass MoCA parking lot opposite its campus into the world record for sidewalk art painting. It is a potential 92,000 square feet and will be visible from space. Think of the satellite shot projected world wide.

It was great to catch up with Sidewalk Sam. Some 40 years ago I knew him as the artist Robert Guillemin. Then he had an epiphany. He shared with us some of his amazing projects all over America many on truly epic scale. All the more remarkable today because, several years ago, he had an accident that now confines him to a wheel chair. After all these years he is just as fresh, energetic and imaginative as ever.

The project for North Adams is anticipated to last for at least three months and involve armies of participants. Everyone who works on the massive art piece will receive a certificate suitable for framing. What fun. And summer long family activity.

The project is proposed by Phil Sellers of River Hill Pottery in the Eclipse Mill. Phil, who is chair of Open Studios, is looking for a lot of help. I attended the meeting with the Sellers, Sidewalk, Mass MoCA director, Joe Thompson, and Mayor Alcombright.  There was a pizza dinner and community meeting that evening with more ideas knocking about the table. One question is how to organize a doable chalk drawing project for this summer. Everyone seems excited about making this happen.

It is great to see the Mayor and Mass MoCA sitting side by side to make things happen in North Adams. This is just what a lot of us have been hoping for. North Adams is coming into its own. The potential has always been there. It has just taken time, commitment, ideas, and focus to connect the dots. Yowzah.