Every small-to-midsize Massachusetts town I’ve had occasion to drive through or visit these last three years seems to possess a seamy industrial underbelly, more often than not in plain view of historic dwellings in varied states of loving restoration or decline, depending. (Second Empire is hands-down my favorite iteration of the Victorian style, and it is everywhere in these parts.) There is palpable evidence of renewed life in some urban centers where the recent past has not been kind, others are not yet there. The decline of American manufacturing and industry echoes in grand industrial buildings where architects once paid exquisite attention to detail: you can see it still, even where windows are replaced by plywood or missing altogether, and rotted foundations are betrayed as far aloft as rooflines.
Give me gritty nineteenth century industrial buildings and a jaw-dropping collection of modern art any day of the week—is there a better combination of the built environment and our own creative thumbprint? MASS MoCA—the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—occupies a campus of some 26 of these buildings (not all of them yet renovated), every bit the attraction as the art collections therein. The buildings themselves were home to the Sprague Electric Company from 1942 to 1985 (maker of weapons systems during the war and consumer electronics in peacetime), and Arnold Print Works prior to that, a Civil War-era textiles company whose fingers reached into the modern manufacturing era. A squat building at the entrance to the sprawling campus still bears a rusted sign reminding employees to present identification before entering.
HCB and I spent an indulgent Saturday there; it was a spiritually and intellectually nourishing day. Standouts for me were Clifford Ross’ Landscape Seen and Imagined photography exhibit (I have not felt so moved by photography since my introduction to the work of Ansel Adams in the early 1980s), and Jim Shaw’s bizarre but evocative collection, Entertaining Doubts, which included an honest portrayal of his own father’s immersion in a 1950s correspondence school to learn how to draw. Knowing that piece of his past somehow made his own art feel more accessible.
I could not pull my eyes away from the main building itself, a delicious new detail around every corner. You can’t touch the art in a museum; there are no rules about touching walls and windows and doors. My past as a student of historical archaeology urges me to touch everything, and I did. And I was delighted to find tell-tale striations of original, early glass through which the outside world appeared distorted in a pleasing way.
There was music in surprise places: a bluegrass band in a freight elevator followed visitors up and down with a serenade in tight quarters; my camera could not deal with the darkness in the confined black box, but I still loved the unintentional movement in the photos I made. Another appealing Celtic ensemble entertained visitors in the museum café.
It was a beautiful day, bumper to bumper. Hat tip to my friend Margaret for the alert to the free admission.
All images of artwork in this post are of works currently on exhibit at MASS MoCA.