Case Study

MASS MoCA: Rethinking an Industrial Complex as a New Museum and Urban Anchor

Objective: Traditionally, “anchor institutions” have been thought of as hospitals and universities. ICIC believes that definition should be expanded to include other important economic organizations, such as sports team franchises, major corporate entities and cultural institutions. This case study highlights the potential economic impact of a cultural institution on a local, post-industrial economy.

Major Participants: City of North Adams, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Williams College Museum of Art, Bruner Cott Architects, Peabody Construction

Background: Since the late 18th century, downtown North Adams was supported by a robust manufacturing economy. A large manufacturing complex with 26 separate mills and supporting buildings allowed companies like Arnold Print Works (textiles) and Sprague Electric Company (R&D, consumer electric parts) thrive throughout the 1900s. But by the mid-1980s, most manufacturing companies had downsized or relocated elsewhere, leaving North Adams with a vast complex ripe for redevelopment, but no manufacturing uses in sight. In 1986, as local leaders contemplated reuse alternatives, Williams College Museum of Art director Thomas Krens approached city leaders about using the 13-acre manufacturing complex, comprising of one-third of the City’s downtown commercial district, to house large works of contemporary art that traditional museums could not accommodate.

How it Happened: Shortly after being approached by Krens, then-North Adams Mayor John Barrett III endorsed the idea of using the site as an art exhibition facility. Kren’s colleague, Joseph C. Thompson, was brought on in 1987 to spearhead the creation of the new Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Thompson began lobbying for the formation of the museum when the project was first proposed. During design development and the private fundraising stage, Thompson expanded the institution from its initial mission as a fixed depot for the display of contemporary art to include all types of visual and performing arts. His vision was to create a laboratory for both artists and visitors. In 1988, the Massachusetts legislature approved the project. At one point, poor economic conditions threatened the project, but broad-based support from the private sector and local community propelled the project forward to the tune of $8 million. A feasibility study for MASS MoCA began in the early 1990s, and in 1992 an architectural firm was brought on to begin looking at design opportunities for the massive industrial complex. In 1995, final designs were released and a master plan issuedBy 1999 when the project opened, Thompson had raised $65 million in public and private funds for the project. Under Thompson’s directorship, MASS MoCA has built two indoor and two outdoor performing arts venues plus supporting rehearsal and laboratory space. Since opening, 45 new visual arts commissions have been realized at MASS MoCA, and over 50 new works of theater, dance and music have been created or shaped there. In all, there have been over 500 exhibitions and over 300 performing arts events at MASS MoCA—now considered the largest center for contemporary and visual arts in the United States.

Results for Local Economy: MASS MoCA generates an estimated $20+ million per year in local economic activity. A study by the Ford Foundation and Williams College Center for Creative Community Development found that MASS MoCA and its 160,000 annual museum visitors bring in $14 million per year just from the exhibition and performing arts programs, plus some $2-3 million per year from its growing music festivals. Additionally, the MASS MoCA complex has drawn 26 other commercial tenants – totaling more than 200,000 s.f. of commercial space – to the now mixed-use campus, which together adds another $5 million to the regional economy. In total, it is estimated that the reuse of the industrial complex for this purpose has served as a catalyst for more than 800 new jobs. MASS MoCA has become an anchor to the North Adams economy, and sparked a burgeoning arts and creative culture that has made the city a more desirable place for people to live, work and play.

Challenges: Early on, fundraising for MASS MoCA was a struggle. It took a widespread, coordinated effort among policymakers and other stakeholders to convince people that the sprawling industrial campus could indeed make North Adams a cultural destination. Once up and running, the museum, due to its infancy, lacked any meaningful endowment. MASS MoCA had no lines of credit to operate; the museum was essentially operating as a start-up. Drawing commercial tenants was critical to the museum’s success, but even that presented challenges. In 2005, MASS MoCA was forced to file a claim in Berkshire Superior Court against two tenants that owed $259,000 in back rent and other expenses. Even with MASS MoCA, it did not guarantee that local businesses would thrive. For reasons like these, MASS MoCA struggled to meet its budget gap for years. Only recently did the museum become profitable.

Another challenge was convincing the local, low-income and blue-collar communities that art could serve as an economic development tool. For many North Adams and Berkshire County residents, art was never a priority. Even Mayor Barrett claimed that it wasn’t his “cup of tea,” but that it was a promising economic development strategy. At the time, there were no other significant prospects for the former industrial buildings, so the City had little to lose in implementing this strategy. It was only after new commercial development followed that many residents began to see this as an effective plan.

Lessons Learned: From the outset, it became clear that the project would not be solely the City’s, or solely an idea that emerged out of Williams College. Indeed, it was critical to build a broad-base of supporters. The project never would have moved forward without private sector buy-in: the $9.4 million in private funds for construction support were essential for getting the project off the ground. When the economy slowed during the 2000s, it was again the private sector that pitched in to keep MASS MoCA’s lights on. Meanwhile, the museum has built relationships with universities and other museums across the United States to foster long-term programmatic collaboration that draws an even wider audience.

Moreover, all development does not need to happen at once. MASS MoCA focused on reuse of just one portion of the industrial campus early on. Once this proved fruitful, they expanded to other portions of the campus. In 2014, the Massachusetts state legislature approved a bill that included $25 million to complete the final phase of MASS MoCA’s build-out. The museum must raise an additional $30 million to complete the project, but this will allow for 130,000 s.f. of new gallery space and will double the space for exhibitions.



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