Joe Thompson Maps Five Year Plan

Cultural Synergy Raises Tide for North Adams and Williamstown

By: - Jul 02, 2013

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Charles Giuliano What’s happening with the development of the Anselm Kiefer building at Mass MoCA" Is there any progress on plans for the Clark Art Institute building on the MoCA campus?

Joe Thompson On Kiefer you’ll be hearing something very shortly. In the late summer to early fall that project will be nearing completion.  (To develop a new building with a long term installation of works by the renowned German artist to lives in France.) We’ll have more to say on that in the next week or two.

CG Will he come? (The artist is notoriously reclusive rarely allowing interviews or to be photographed.)

JT I don’t know yet.

CG On the Clark that would be a question for them. They have the rights to develop a building.

JT Obviously they have been consumed with first completing their Tadao Ando master plan. They expect to complete the project by summer 2014.

CG In terms of the MoCA campus the building is prime property. It’s separates the parking lots before the entrance to the museum. In terms of visitors it's waterfront property.

JT It is. I’ve seen early plans and ideas for it which are quite exciting. There is front of house public space and back of house work space Michael Conforti (director of the Clark Art Institute) has exciting ideas of how to program it in ways that would bridge and link the two institutions. It would promote cross traffic between North Adams and Williamstown. Which would be welcome indeed.

CG He seems to be inching his way into the 20th century.

JT I’ve noticed his programming. It’s 20th century and sometimes 21st century. There’s lots of interest over at the Clark.

CG The El Anatsui exhibition was excellent.

JT My sense is that it’s just a matter of timing and the Ando project has been a whopper. I’m sure it’s taking up every bit of band width that they’ve got over there. It’s taking a  lot of money so I’m sure it’s first things first. I expect to hear back from them once they swallow that project.

The El Anatsui was great and they’re not done working with living artists. It’s more a matter of timing and that would be a question for Michael.

CG I understand but the challenge is how to connect the dots and create synergy. We have Mass MoCA, The Clark, Williams College and its Museum of Art, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown Film Festival, and MCLA. Those are all great cultural resources that if conflated would create a critical mass beyond the individual elements.

JT Exactly. You’re exactly right. It goes from the mundane, joint ticket sales, to co-promotion and co-marketing of a trip to this region. Which we did. WCMA, Mass MoCA and the Clark this summer are marketing a three-for ticket. The Mass MoCA/ Clark ticket we used to sell a few hundred a year now it’s many, many thousands. So people are definitely visiting the three art museums.

CG If you go back a decade it was a tough sell to get the New York/ Southern Berkshire County visitors to make the drive to Northern Berkshires and its attractions. Now the locus seems to have shifted to Pittsfield and mid county with more visitation to the Northern Berkshires.

JT Yes.

CG When Tom Krens was planning the launch of Mass MoCA in his office at the Williams College Museum of Art there was a map of Massachusetts. The center was North Adams with a series of concentric circles representing one hour drives. The problem is that North Adams, and beyond it Route 2 and the Mohawk Trail is sparsely populated. In that sense we are the last stop for day trippers and cultural tourism. How to make North Adams/ Williamstown more attractive as a destination? Over the past few years there has been a gradual development of Northern Berkshires as the destination for a day trip and even a weekend. Is that a fair assessment?

JT It’s an absolutely fair assessment. You can see it in a lot of ways. There is new hotel development in the Pittsfield area. That’s going to move the density of location options closer to North Adams. Traveling back and forth from north to south with greater ease now is good for everybody. Because of the way that visitation occurs every new visitor to Northern County is also a net gain for South County.

Berkshire County, as a whole, in my view, is deeply, deeply undersold. Napa Valley is five or six times our total visitation and economic impact. Similarly Charleston, South Carolina and the Spoleto Festival area (May 28 to June 8, 2014). It’s two or three times what our region has.

Maybe we don’t have the order of magnitude but we have multiples of growth that we are capable of given the quality of the cultural and outdoor recreational attractions. In my view we’re really just getting started.

Just wait. This time next year when the Clark has reopened. The campus will include beautiful nature walks. A fabulous new building by Tadao Ando. Mass MoCA will have a whole new part of its campus reactivated with the Kiefer project. Suddenly both The Clark and Mass MoCA are more attractive.

Ten years ago the Clark was a one hour or two hour stay. Similarly for Mass MoCA. By next year, happily, both of those museums are places where you can spend three or four or even five hours.

CG North Adams was destroyed by Urban Renewal decades ago. Neighborhoods were leveled, populations and small businesses were uprooted. This resulted in an overpass that takes you down from Route Two and right through the city. There is no reason for traffic to be slowed down or diverted into the city for dining and shopping. Now visitors come to Mass MoCA but the main flow of traffic is to pass through the city as quickly as possible. That destructive infrastructure still exists. While there are visitors to Mass MoCA there is nothing enticing them into the city to support struggling local business.

JT There’s really interesting thought work going on about that. The North Adams Partnership has been involved in this. It has recently hired a strategic rethinking of what North Adams and that overpass might feel like. North Adams is a great walking town. You can get everywhere in ten minutes. It’s not always easy to do. The cross walks are screwed up. Traffic lights are often out of sync. The signage could be much better.

The North Adams Partnership has recently commissioned a thoughtful piece of work  by HRA. They are economic redevelopment master thinkers. And an urban design firm Shop. You’ll be hearing more about that work over the next few months as it ramps up.

North Adams Partnership has pinpointed five or six projects. Just the things that you’re talking about. Exactly the points that you’ve raised. Right on target and a part of this far reaching look at the infrastructure.

A lot of it the city itself is already working on. There’s a master planning effort that City Hall has organized. Berkshire County Planning Authority.

I think the next five years could be really exciting. As Mass MoCA and the Clark expand and deepen their programs. As the town looks forward to the next thing. And really digs in and grapples with the relationship between Mass MoCA and the downtown business district, Heritage Park, and Eagle Street. There’s a lot of great things that can happen.

CG As I have often said to you as well as published there needs to be an extension of Mass MoCA from its campus into the downtown. That would entail world class artists putting works into the business district. For example, imagine if the iconic, upside down trees on the MoCA campus were sited down the center strip of the downtown. I'm not suggesting that they be moved. But I'm just using them as an example of the kind of public art that Mass MoCA is able to commission. No visit to Mass MoCA would be complete without seeing these additional works. They would form a bread crumb trail through the city and the museum might provide a treasure map for visitors to find them. The challenge is to get MoCA visitors out of the parking lot and into the city.

JT Those are points well taken. At the same time we need a really good strategy and plan for developing the commercial infrastructure. So that when they are downtown there is a plethora of things to do, see and buy.

All that has to happen. You can’t wave a wand and make that happen all at once. There needs to be a very good plan for getting there. We’ll see that coming here in the very near term.

CG A lot of people are visibly and vocally frustrated. Many artists came here with sanguine optimism. Now they find it difficult to show and sell their work. There is no real audience for what they are doing. It’s a real struggle to find jobs and pay rent. Many came here for the prospect of affordable loft living but it is a struggle to survive. While lofts have doubled in equity, now that they are more expensive, they are difficult to sell. This is resulting in an older demographic. It’s ok to retire and move to North Adams with resources but it is not a destination for emerging and mid career artists.

JT Price and sales are linked.

CG It’s still possible to buy a substantial house in North Adams in the range of $100,000. Also after being kept artificially low for decades property taxes are now increasing sharply. You can’t come here expecting to make a living.

JT That’s right. Jobs. That’s what it’s about.

CG That was the whole premise of Tom Krens and Governor Dukakis in the creation of Mass MoCA. It was intended to promote cultural tourism and create jobs.

JT You have to look at it like this. In the early 1990s, just before we began construction, the unemployment rate in North Adams was exactly seven times what the state unemployment level was. Seven. The unemployment rate now is still high but two times the state level. That’s still unacceptable, obviously. But seven times is a lot worse than two times.

Similarly with the downtown storefront occupancy rate. The storefront occupancy rate in the downtown  was about 25% from 1989 to 1993. That means that three out of four were empty.

Now three out of four have something in them. That’s still not acceptable.

CG A lot of those occupancies are popups and summer galleries through DownStreet. Also the new expanded Walmart is a threat to small business development in North Adams.

JT It’s much more diversified. There are things going on. There’s good planning work. A lot of gains have been made.

Is it time for more? Absolutely.

It’s going to take an effort. Private investment. Hard work by downtown landlords. Hard work by retailers and merchants. Hard work by Mass MoCA. The North Adams Partnership. To create those links and bridges that you talked about.

There’s also the economy. We’re coming off six years of hell. There’s a little flicker of hope out there now.

CG Your role as director of the museum and its mandate seem unique in this country. I can’t think of any other museums as multivalent and octopus like as Mass MoCA. Is that true?

JT On several levels. One, we’ve talked about this in the past. We spend fully half of our human resources, financial and emotional band width on the performing arts. We’re half performing arts and half visual arts. That in itself is unusual for places that call themselves museums.

Secondly, we take seriously the mandate you spoke about of using arts as a catalyst, as a lever to spur economic activity in a town that really needs it.

That across the board focus on all art forms, both performing and visual, and trying to position what we do to generate more activity for our neighbors, more economic activity, is rather rare.

It gets back to why we are doing festivals and events that pack the town. It is very much right at the core of our mission.

CG There are citizens and neighbors who lament the inconvenience.

JT Yeah. I’m sure there are. It’s a relatively short time. It might be a little bit difficult to find a parking space for a few days out of the year.

If that’s what it means to be living in a place that’s vibrant and thriving, well, I would like to find a way to make parking hard to find 365 days out of the year.

The day that people are up in arms about parking in North Adams will be a very good day indeed.

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