Wilco Takes Over An Art Museum This Weekend Mass MoCA is giving the rock band Wilco permission to transform its 200,000-square-foot facility -- and its sprawling 14-acre campus -- into a huge playground for musicians and thousands of fans. Wilco, its numerous side projects, and many other musicians and artists will participate.
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Wilco Takes Over An Art Museum This Weekend

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Wilco Takes Over An Art Museum This Weekend

Wilco Takes Over An Art Museum This Weekend

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The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is an internationally respected art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, a quiet town in the Berkshire Mountains.

(Soundbite of music)

WILCO: (Singing) The (unintelligible) don't pave that highway and a muzzle appears(ph)...

HANSEN: Wilco is an internationally respected Chicago rock band with rabidly loyal fans. Maybe you're one of them. If so, you might already know that Wilco is hosting its very first music festival this weekend at Mass MoCA.

Andrea Shea, of member station WBUR, has the story.

(Soundbite of music)

WILCO: (Singing) The dogs (unintelligible), they're barking, don't think of me...

ANDREA SHEA: Think about it: a major art museum gives a rock band permission to transform its 200,000 square foot facility and its sprawling 14-acre campus into a huge playground for musicians and thousands of fans. According to Wilco's front man Jeff Tweedy, this somewhat shocking concept was dreamed up by Wilco's manager, Tony Margherita, who's a big fan of the Berkshires and Mass MoCA.

Mr. JEFF TWEEDY (Wilco): I think Tony saw a similarity in the way that they were presenting art to the way that Wilco operates. We take it very seriously and at the same time, want it to be an enjoyable experience. And don't make a lot of distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow and try and engage people in a really direct manner.

(Soundbite of music)

WILCO: (Singing) I need a camera to my eye, to my eye...

SHEA: Mass MoCA's presented everything from dance pieces by Merce Cunningham, to wall drawings by conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt, to a controversial exhibition involving genetically-altered food, to the photographs of Leonard Nimoy. So, why did the museum's director, Joe Thompson, agree to let dozens of musicians, comedians, and puppeteers take over his space?

Mr. JOE THOMPSON (Director, Mass MoCA): We see ourselves literally as a platform for all kinds of art and music, and we admire the band and the kind of music that they make. Secondly, and more selfishly, there are a lot of new people who will show up over this weekend who haven't been here before.

SHEA: They'll be coming mostly to hear Wilco, a Chicago band with a reputation for smart, sometimes sensitive, sometimes inscrutable lyrics, with a pretty but gritty backdrop.

(Soundbite of music)

WILCO: (Singing) I am an American aquarium drinker. I assassin down the avenue. I'm riding out in six city blinking, what was I thinking when I let go of you?

SHEA: In between sets, fans are wandering through Mass MoCA's galleries. In addition to the museum's current shows, there are also exhibit curated by Wilco. A retrospective of silkscreened concert posters hangs in one gallery, also Polaroids and an interactive drum head installation. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline devised the Solid Sound Stomp Box Station, his homage to the foot pedals guitar players use to alter their instruments sound. Visitors to Mass MoCA can, well, stomp them.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: All of this reflects the Wilco aesthetic, says Jeff Tweedy.

Mr. TWEEDY: All the different artistic, creative aspects of the band and the things surrounding the band are going to be on display. And I thought that that seems like a pretty rare thing to be able to find a place that would facilitate all of that.

SHEA: At the same time, though, it's safe to say there are a lot of people in Mass MoCA's home town of North Adams who've never heard Wilco's music and, frankly, have no idea what Wilco even is.

Mr. JARVIS ROCKWELL (Artist): Isn't that what they used to say on the radio or something like that, in the Second World War, I think? Wilco over and out, or something like that, yeah.

SHEA: That's artist Jarvis Rockwell, son of Norman Rockwell. He lives just outside town and has a new retrospective of art made from action figures in a space on Main Street. The galleries in North Adams have stayed open late for the festival. So have the restaurants and shops. The city is doing its best to impress the visitors without ticking off too many residents in the process.

Mr. ROCKWELL: I think the residents are uh more worried about making a living, frankly.

SHEA: Like the rest of us, the people in North Adams are struggling through the recession. But this town has actually been fighting to get back on its fiscal feet for decades. It sank after the Sprague Electric Factory closed in 1985. Mass MoCA eventually took over the abandoned factory, transforming it into a massive museum. It helped boost the local economy by attracting tourists and artists to the town. Then our current economic downturn hit.

Brian Miksic, head the business association Develop North Adams, says Wilco's Solid Sound Festival might be the best thing to happen to North Adams since the museum opened 10 years ago.

Mr. BRIAN MIKSIC (Develop North Adams): This is a small town, this is a town of 14,000 people. And so my wife's little children's boutique on an average Saturday has 50 people walk through the door. You know, when you have 8,000 people in town, or 6,000 people, there's just no way that there's not going to be a bump.

SHEA: Even some local musicians are getting a boost. Not that The Books need it.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BOOKS: (Singing) I didn't know that. I didn't know that.

SHEA: The Books are getting a lot of attention for their new album, but the duo has always been a favorite of Wilco's. Nick Zammuto, one half of The Books, has a home just across the border in Vermont. But he spent many years living in North Adams. He even recorded parts of one of The Books' seminal albums in the pantry of a run-down, $300-a-month apartment just up the hill from Mass MoCA.

Mr. NICK ZAMMUTO (The Books): And to kind of see North Adams go from, you know, the late 90s when Mass MoCA didn't exist till now, it's been an unbelievable journey for the town and it's been, you know, largely powered by art and music. So, to see it come to fruition in this way is a real satisfying thing.

SHEA: Zammuto says Wilco and Mass MoCA make a good match because the band and the museum are creative risk-takers, but also laid back and kind of mature. Even so, the town has deployed extra police and the museum hired extra guards for the galleries, just in case. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy says there probably won't be any fist fights at the festival but given the disposition of Wilco fans...

Mr. TWEEDY: There might be some hurt feelings and some passive-aggressiveness, a few tears.

SHEA: If all goes well Wilco, Mass MoCA and North Adams want to make the Solid Sound Festival an annual event. Jeff Tweedy encourages visitors this weekend to visit him at the dunking booth.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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