North Adams, Mass.: A Manufacturing Town For Art In a valley at the foot of the Berkshire Mountains, a struggling industrial town is making an artistic comeback. North Adams is now home to MASS MoCA, one of the largest museums of contemporary art in the world — housed in 26 former factory buildings.
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North Adams, Mass.: A Manufacturing Town For Art

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North Adams, Mass.: A Manufacturing Town For Art

North Adams, Mass.: A Manufacturing Town For Art

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This summer, in our series, Destination Art, we've been visiting places that are off the beaten path and known for their lively art scenes. Today, to a small city in the mountains of western Massachusetts, North Adams. It was a crumbling mill town that became an experiment in creating an art-based economy.

NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us what happened to the city since an old factory complex was transformed into one of the world's largest museums of contemporary art.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Twenty-six hulking brick buildings, 600,000 square feet of raw, sunlit space. One room's filled with over 100 floor-to-ceiling sized drawings. This place is so enormous that it has an interior bridge. Now, it's a sound installation by the drummer of the band, Wilco.


ULABY: A hundred years ago, this was a textile factory humming with iron looms and sweaty workers. When the museum opened in 1999, its director, Joe Thompson, talked with an old-timer wistful for the days when work was work and industrial dye did not count as pollution.

JOE THOMPSON: She said, oh, growing up, it was so beautiful because, on Tuesdays, the rivers flowed vermilion. On Wednesdays, they were bright green. She said, you could practically keep track of the days by what color the river was. She said, it was just marvelous.

ULABY: The Berkshires look fine today without artificial enhancements, says North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright.

RICHARD ALCOMBRIGHT: If you're coming over the mountains, you look down and it looks like we're in the palm of God's hand.

ULABY: Alcombright's family has lived among these sloping mountains thick with maples and spruce since the turn of the last century. He remembers when it seemed like everyone in North Adams had a job.

ALCOMBRIGHT: The mills were booming. The rivers were horribly polluted. It was just a very, very different time. Our Main Street was like the mall at Christmas. Matter of fact, every Saturday, you came to Main Street. Everything was in Main Street.

ULABY: Today, Main Street looks a little forlorn. More than 20 percent of North Adams citizens live below the poverty line. When the textile industry moved overseas in the 1930s, the factory started making electronic components and, when that industry moved overseas, North Adams lost 3,000 jobs, leaving little but a grimy old factory and fading Victorian charm.

STEPHEN SHEPPARD: This is a lovely little downtown. I mean, we're sitting here on the sidewalk. You got the umbrellas. You got the coffee shop.

ULABY: Stephen Sheppard is an economist at nearby Williams College. He studies the effects of museums on local economies.

SHEPPARD: There was an initial assumption that having Mass MoCA would transform this Main Street to be like it was in, quote, unquote, "the olden days."

ULABY: At first, backers estimated the museum would create over 600 jobs. Sheppard says it turned out to be less than 300. He thinks there was over-reliance on an idea that became popular about 10 years ago, that post-industrial cities could turn themselves around by putting in art galleries and developing economies based on what best-selling author Richard Florida called the creative class.

JONATHAN SECOR: Every time you kicked over a stone, there was a bug under it that started yammering about the creative economy.

ULABY: That's partly what lured Jonathan Secor to North Adams from New York City. He runs the Berkshire Culture Resource Center, a nonprofit that supports a smattering of small galleries downtown. In Gallery 51, you can see some unusual animal-themed art, like a 20-foot sculpture of...

SECOR: A foxtopus. Part octopus, part fox.

ULABY: Secor remembers when everyone thought Mass MoCA would solve all of the town's problems.

SECOR: It was the fix. It's not the fix. You know, four years later, Main Street is still not feeling it. And so when we opened Gallery 51, that was going to be the fix. You know, two years later, it's not going - and we did DownStreet Art.

ULABY: Secor has come to believe that transforming North Adams will take time. His assistant, Francesca DeBiaso, is 22 years old. She moved here from Washington, D.C.

FRANCESCA DEBIASO: Something's growing here and so I'm interested to see where it's going to go.

ULABY: Now, townies can be a bit more skeptical about how much art has changed North Adams.

REGGIE ROY: It's about the same.

ULABY: In a local diner, a grizzled biker in a leather vest is enjoying breakfast. His name is Reggie Roy.

ROY: That's a heck of a French name, isn't it?


ULABY: Roy is originally from northern Quebec, but he's lived in North Adams for a very long time.

ROY: Forty-one years, honey.

ULABY: And he admits he's never been to Mass MoCA.

ROY: That's a bad thing. My son's been there and, you know, he says, Dad, it's not for me, but it's neat. You got to go see it. It's different, very different.

ULABY: The museum is dynamic and unstuffy. It favors up-and-comers, not superstars. It lacks the kind of artwork so famous people flock here just to see it. Mass MoCA's director says there may have been some miscalculation about how the museum could tap into the area's booming arts tourism.

THOMPSON: There are, like, two and a half million people a year who come to Berkshire County. Very few of them attend multiple institutions

ULABY: Meaning music fans go to Tanglewood, theatre buffs to Williamstown and dance nerds hit Jacob's Pillow. North Adams is too far away to attract the creative class of Boston or Brooklyn, even though you can buy a sweet live-work loft here for under $40,000.

Still, according to Mass MoCA, the museum draws more than 120,000 visitors every year. Director Joe Thompson says it contributes $50 million annually to the local economy. He remembers taking former factory workers through the old buildings during renovation. One called it horrible.

THOMPSON: And I said, well, what do you mean, horrible? She said, oh, it's so light. And I said, but, mostly, we, as human beings, like light. She says, oh, no. It's terrible. It's so light and, when we worked here, these windows were covered. There were bookshelves in front of them and parts bins and it was dark and full of activity and jobs, and now it's just light and empty.

ULABY: What this factory makes now cannot be measured in bales or boxes, and it can never be what it was hoped it could replace. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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