Tom Krens Proposes a New North Adams Museum

The Global Contemporary Collection and Museum Planned for Route Two

By: - Aug 12, 2015

Krens Krens

In the global art world, Tom Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim Museum and its international satellites which he initiated, is a visionary and game changer.

"Altogether I've done or worked on 44 museum building projects, extension projects and architectural projects over the past 30 years," Krens said recently.

It was announced this week that his latest project The Global Contemporary Collection and Museum is planned for North Adams.

His remarkable career started some three decades ago when the Williams graduate, who holds masters degrees in fine arts and business, was director of the Williams College Museum of Art.

With a roll of keys on a Saturday afternoon he conducted me on a tour of the 16 acre campus of the former Sprague Electric Company in depressed North Adams. There were leaks in roofs resulting in buckled floors. Through broken windows birds made their nests.

In Building Five looking up he discussed a plan to remove the second floor to create what has become one of the grandest, vaulted spaces for contemporary art in North America.

While Krens launched the project it would take years and a constant struggle for his former WCMA associate, Joe Thompson, to follow through with the launch of Mass MoCA. Krens departed for the Guggenheim where he pursued dramatic expansion which was a magnet for controversy. His tenure ended in 2008 leaving him free to develop other projects.

The group that he represents in a for profit venture has obtained approval to pursue a 20 year lease in order to build a 160,000 square-foot facility on the grounds of North Adams' Harriman-West Airport. It would be located adjacent to Stop & Shop on State Road.

The project will be developed by Richard Gluckman of Gluckman Mayner Architects. As he told I Berkshires "The concept basically is super sophisticated, super inexpensive but elegant industrial architecture, something Richard Gluckman specializes in."

If the project moves forward, Krens indicates the feasibility studies will be completed soon, the current Northern Berkshire Family Medicine building would be demolished to make room for the new structure. It is estimated that it would cost some $10 to $15 million to build. That is a modest amount of money compared to the multiple millions required to acquire its projected collection.

Following decades of economic stagnation there is now a lot of development, particularly in arts and education, pouring into Northern Berkshire County.

Last year the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown completed its expansion and renovation designed by Tadao Ando. This summer there has been a daily overflow of cars of visitors to a tandem of blockbusters Van Gogh and Nature and Whistler’s Mother.

Also this week it was announced that over the next few years Williams College will be spending upward of $278 million in capital projects including a $200 million science center slated to open in 2020. 

The Williams College Museum of Art has outgrown its expansion which was designed by Charles Moore starting in 1981 over six years while Krens was director. Moore also designed the Hood Museum of Art for Dartmouth College. Over the next few years a new museum will be constructed with a budget of $64 million.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has received $25.4 million of State money to complete the final phase of its campus with 130,000 square feet of new exhibition space. In the manner of the Kiefer and LeWitt buildings it will represent the long term display, but not ownership, of works by several renowned contemporary artists.

With private money the Hall Art Foundation funded the renovation and creation of a MoCA building to display and maintain selections from its Anselm Kiefer collection for some 15 years.

With his project Krens is taking the concept of private funding for a new museum to a different level.

When completed Mass MoCA, which opened in 1999, will have 260,000 square feet of exhibition space compared to a similar institution Dia Beacon, a relatively close neighbor in upstate New York, which occupies 240,000 square feet. A major difference is that MoCA also has changing exhibitions while Dia has a fixed permanent collection. This is also the case for the Chinati and Judd Foundations occupying a former Air Force base and downtown property in Marfa, Texas.

Matching State money Joe Thompson, the director of MoCA, is leading a drive to raise $30 million in private funding. The renovation which is essentially cosmetic is expected to be completed in a couple of years.

Another piece of the development equation was announced recently.

The long languishing Cariddi Mill, a 342,000 square-foot industrial complex at 508 State Road with 7.8 acres, is slated for mixed use development as Greylock Works. It is planned to include retail, manufacturing, restaurant and hotel operations.

The project is being initiated by Latent Productions headed by Salvatore Perry and Karla Maria Rothstein. The Mill was initially a part of the cotton processing industry which dominated the economy of the Northern Berkshires.

Stepping back one may connect the dots.

There has been an ever growing arts community drawn to the region by the development of Mass MoCA. Many have taken advantage of industrial mill space and cheap real estate to establish homes and studios.

The rate of growth in that commitment and investment, however, has been agonizingly slow. The cultural/ tourism economy has grown incrementally. Overall, there has been a lack of jobs necessary to sustain year round what is essentially a seasonal industry. Winters are long and harsh.

If all of these plans and projects move forward that could change quickly and dramatically. There are enticing opportunities for large and small investors.

As a for profit institution the museum will be subject to taxation. This will provide much needed revenue to the city of North Adams. It remains to be seen, however, what concessions and incentives for infrastructure will be required to secure the project for the host city.

In announcing his plans Krens, an astute entrepreneur, has noted that the region needs one or two more cultural attractions and a cohesive marketing strategy to affirm its status as a destination for long term visitation. That equates to more to see and do. There is a changing pattern from day trips and one-nighters to long weekends. That represents a significant increase in revenue for the region. 

Add Williamstown Theatre Festival to the seasonal mix, or rock and folk festivals like Solid Sound, Bang on the Can, and Fresh Grass at MoCA. It is quickly evident that there are not enough beds to accommodate visitors. At least one motel is slated for renovation. Williams College has bought the Williams Inn and is developing its own boutique hotel.

For those who visit or acquire vacation property in the Northern Berkshires other cultural attractions from Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Tanglewood in Lenox, and several equity theaters are within driving distance. Recently, it took just 38 minutes to drive home from a Tanglewood concert to our home in Adams.

Another major inducement is that property values in the Northern Berkshires are roughly half of what they are in South County. The pace of arts and leisure development has stimulated a spike for Pittsfield and its hospitality industry.

In developing their plans it is likely that Krens and Greylock Works, neighbors on the highly trafficked Route Two corridor between North Adams and Williamstown, are aware of and responding to each other.

Every crafty Krens is putting forth a very different concept for developing a museum.

If you follow the global art market, and its network of biennials and art fairs, there is a staggering amount of money involved. Investing in blue chip modern and contemporary art has proven to be more secure and generally outpaces other investment opportunities such as the quixotic stock and bond market.

During times of economic fluctuation, such as when the market tanked several years ago, blue chip art tends to maintain is value.

When I spoke with Krens decades ago for Art News and Art New England he discussed MoCA as a warehouse for collections of minimal art. That is precisely how Dia Beacon and the museums in Marfa, Texas developed. Under Thompson, MoCA has programmed rotating annual exhibitions in addition to a growing spectrum of decades long installations.

What Kens proposes is close to his original concept for MoCA. There is, however, a major difference. The facility will comprise 120,000 square feet of exhibition space and 40,000 for storage.

Instead of a 501(c)3, which proved to be cumbersome when Krens was developing projects for the Guggenheim, the museum will function as a for profit venture to benefit a consortium of collectors.

The plan is to acquire and display a permanent collection of some 400 blue chip works. Depending on the artists and objects being pursued that investment would be in a plausible range of from $100 million to $400 million. This is based on focusing on established rather than mid career or emerging artists. Depending upon the curator behind the selections, to balance the investment, there may be a level of speculation.

A dealer in the high end contemporary market observed that the best works with aesthetic and historical status command between $1 million to $3 million and for truly outstanding examples as much as $60 million. 

When Sam Hunter founded the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University in the 1960s, for example, he bought some 20 works with about $40,000 in seed money. The collection grew to a value of  $300 million plus when cash strapped former president, Yehuda Reinharz, attempted to sell it.

Insiders and speculators will follow with close interest the acquisitions of the Krens museum. It may prove to be a market maker in the manner of Charles Saatchi at the apex of his activity. As an investor/ speculator as well as museum founder Saatchi, from time to time, has cashed in by dumping holdings in certain artists.

The objects will either be owned by the lenders or they will buy into shares of the collection. Unlike other museums restricted by a code of professional ethics the works may be bought and sold for profit.

At the end of the 20 year lease the entire collection may be liquidated with profits shared by the stock holders. It is revealing that Krens is moving to lease not own the property on the edge of the airport. There is no plan to establish a permanent museum.

The Krens project will build a new facility rather than renovate yet another 19th century mill. It implies that the structure will be designed with maximum efficiency for its intended purpose. One anticipates a streamlined, no frills, industrial structure to display and store works of art with the highest standards for climate control and care of the works.

The twenty year lease arrangement also addresses a question about the generation long display of a fixed collection. Over that span of time, for example, will the minimal art of Dia and Marfa continue to attract visitors? Will the appeal of Kiefer and LeWitt hold their own during the run of their lease?

Of course MoCA broadens its appeal with changing exhibitions. This is a vital part of museum strategies. Once that a critical mass of visitors have seen Kiefer, LeWitt and the new long term exhibitions, what will keep them coming back to North Adams?

With its lease arrangement and ownership of the works as an investment Krens has anticipated an exit strategy. This is a bold, new idea. It is an approach that he was not ethically capable of initiating while director of a non profit institution.

There is a staggering critical mass of mega collectors looking to either develop their own museums, like Eli Broad in Los Angeles, or create alliances with institutions to display and warehouse their holdings long term.

The genius of the Krens strategy for The Global Contemporary Collection and Museum is that collectors are not expected to donate their works. They retain possession with an ability to cash in their chips.

So how does that relate to and benefit you and me?

Over the next twenty years the museum will bring 400 world class contemporary works to the region. That greatly enriches what is already here. It enhances rather than competes with the Clark, Mass MoCA and the Williams College Museum of Art. Add to that the potential of Berkshire Artist Museum in North Adams with its focus on regional artists.

That equates to four museums in a relatively compact geographic area.

If there are four is it logical to speculate, as Krens suggests, that there may be five or more? Given a critical mass of museums will there be more and better non profit and commercial galleries?

With cultural tourism money flooding into the region it is logical to anticipate spikes in the hospitality industry and real estate market.

It has been reported that Krens explored his concept for the past five years. The initial idea was to locate in China with its emerging economy and exploding art market.

Now 68, and contemplating those grueling 16 hour flights to China, Krens has opted to develop a museum closer to home.

Between now and then a lot can happen. This is far from a done deal. But decisions will be made fairly soon.

This is a rapidly developing story which will be closely watched by the media and arts speculators over the coming year. If all goes well there will be shovels in the ground in a matter of months.