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Making it big

As it turns 10, has Mass MoCA finally put its expansive vision on solid financial ground?

Joseph C. Thompson, the only director Mass MoCA has had, hopes to renovate more buildings and to create an outdoor space for a music festival. Joseph C. Thompson, the only director Mass MoCA has had, hopes to renovate more buildings and to create an outdoor space for a music festival. (Stephen Rose for The Boston Globe)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 31, 2009
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NORTH ADAMS - For years, there's been a big secret in this run-down former factory town. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, praised for bringing life to the region, was barely surviving.

Mass MoCA organizers found themselves scrambling every year for more than $1 million just to keep the lights on.

"We had no cash," says director Joseph C. Thompson, sitting in a museum conference room on a recent afternoon. "We nearly went out of business 100 times."

Thompson can talk about the crunch now. For the first time in its history, Mass MoCA is close to breaking even without a desperate round of fund-raising. This month, the museum celebrated an important milestone. It has been 10 years since the largest contemporary art museum in the world opened on the shuttered campus of the former Sprague Electric Co.

In that time, more than a million people have passed through the brick-walled galleries to gaze at exhibits that, in many cases, could not have been seen anyplace else - from Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang's series of nine cars suspended from the ceiling, rods of pulsating light exploding from them, to Sol LeWitt's colorful, detailed wall drawings, spread over three floors in an unprecedented 25-year exhib it. What's more, Thompson, the only leader in Mass MoCA's history, has plans to renovate more of the factory buildings on the museum's site and to create an outdoor concert space for a summertime music festival.

It's a stunning turnaround for a museum that, at one point, seemed unlikely even to be built.

An inspired start
The idea for Mass MoCA emerged almost a quarter-century ago. Thomas Krens, then a professor and director of the Williams College Museum of Art and later responsible for the Guggenheim Foundation's massive museum growth worldwide, remembers exactly when the idea came to him: Nov. 15, 1985.

He had gone to see an exhibition space in Cologne, Germany. A couple of enterprising dealers staged a show by Austrian artist Marcus Lupertz in an old factory building. They didn't bother cleaning up the space or changing a thing before installing the art. They just put up lights.

Krens thought of North Adams, just up the road from his museum in Williamstown. Unemployment was running high in North Adams, particularly with the Sprague plant closing. At one time more than 4,000 people had worked there. Krens pitched the idea for a contemporary-art museum to city leaders and brought two proteges in to work with him on the project: a former student, Joe Thompson, and a current student, Michael Govan.

The locals liked the concept, and Governor Michael Dukakis supported the plan. In 1988, the Legislature agreed to provide $35 million to renovate the site - providing Mass MoCA raised $15 million on its own. That same year, Krens left for the top job at the Guggenheim Foundation. He offered Thompson the deputy director job at the Guggenheim. Thompson declined, telling Krens he wanted to stay in North Adams. (Govan got the Guggenheim job.)

"If Joe hadn't stayed," Krens said in a recent interview, "Mass MoCA wouldn't have happened."

But Mass MoCA almost didn't happen. When the "Massachusetts Miracle" of the 1980s turned into a recession, support for the project wavered. The state museum money was frozen. It took $8 million of private money and seven years until Governor William Weld released a portion of the original allocation: almost $19 million. When Mass MoCA finally opened in 1999, it was hailed by politicians, arts leaders, and local residents for bringing life - and tourists - to a long-crippled corner of the state.

In its first year, 115,000 people visited Mass MoCA.

Meanwhile, in the galleries, the museum quickly developed a reputation for exhibiting daring works that, by virtue of its ample space, could not be shown anywhere else. Mass MoCA's signature structure, the football field-size Building 5, housed Robert Rauschenberg's massive 1999-2000 installation "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece," featuring colorful quilts and tablecloths, a bench made from oil barrels, and close to 200 other objects. Later shows would include Tim Hawkinson's 300-foot-long "Überorgan," a giant musical instrument made up of tubes and 13 bus-size inflated bags; Ann Hamilton's "Corpus," which involved millions of sheets of white paper dropped, lifted, and then dropped again in a gallery lighted by magenta-tinted windows; Robert Wilson's "14 Stations," which explored Jesus' journey through a series of sculptures, paintings, and clapboard huts; and Jenny Holzer's recent "Projections," in which texts flowed hypnotically across beanbags strewn through the space.

There was, of course, the disastrous dispute with Austrian installation artist Christoph Büchel, who walked out on Mass MoCA because he said it wasn't capable of pulling off his apocalyptic installation planned for Building 5, "Training Ground for Democracy." That conflict ended in name-calling, mutual recriminations, and a 2007 lawsuit filed by Mass MoCA so it could get clearance to show the public the unfinished exhibit, which included everything from a smashed police car to deactivated bombshells, a two-story house that had been sliced apart and put back together, and an entirely rebuilt movie theater. Mass MoCA won in court, but ultimately decided to dismantle the installation.

Even in that debacle, the museum's ambition was evident.

"They added something very unique to the ecology of the museum scene in Massachusetts and the US, period," said Nicholas Baume, chief curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. "Nobody else has that wonderful, character-filled, 19th-century architecture. And they've been smart in the way they've used it, inviting artists who can take advantage of that scale."

With virtually unlimited space, Mass MoCA also found a way to support local artists. Gregory Crewdson, known for his enormous cinematic photographs, needed space to work for his elaborate stagings. Thompson worked out a deal, shortly after the museum opened, to let him use Mass MoCA as his center of operations. In those days, Crewdson traded works for the space, allowing the museum to auction off his photographs to raise money. Later, Crewdson simply paid rent. His work has been shown by the museum, and he was eventually appointed to Mass MoCA's board.

"It's funny," said Crewdson, speaking by phone from Rome, where he was working. "I'm calling you from an enormous back lot of Cinecittà Studios, which is one of the most renowned movie studios in the world. And there's not a doubt in my mind I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that support of Mass MoCA."

Building the endowment
Despite all of his deal-making, Thompson still had a problem.

With no endowment and only limited revenue, the museum opened with an immediate structural deficit. The first year, the deficit was $2 million. Thompson found himself working the phones and his board to raise cash. In 2001, Hans Morris, president of Visa, attended his first board meeting.

He was stunned at what he heard.

"I just remember telling myself, this is so bleak," Morris remembered. "I had no idea how bad it was."

Walking out of that first meeting, Morris pulled out his checkbook and wrote Thompson a check for $10,000.

"You guys need the money," he said.

The gap between revenue and expenses did narrow over time, but not enough. By 2006, the crisis was such that Thompson was unable to pay the museum's bills. Mass MoCA owed close to 100 businesses about $850,000.

He sent a letter asking the vendors to settle for a portion of the debt.

"We want not only to be able to stay in business so that we may remain a customer," the letter read, "but also to thrive, so that we can become a good customer."

The hook, in the letter, was that Mass MoCA, after years of budget problems, had a plan. Instead of spending each year looking for "Hail Mary money," as Thompson called it, they would create an endowment. (They couldn't do so before, Thompson said, because all of the staff's energy had been devoted to continuing to raise the $15 million it needed to receive all the matching state money. The private fund-raising wasn't complete until 2003.) By now, Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, had come to Thompson looking to create a long-term exhibit for LeWitt. That opened the door for raising millions for the project. In addition, in late 2006, a Mass MoCA board member made a dramatic offer to Thompson.

For every month from March through September 2007 that Thompson could raise $1 million in endowment, the board member would provide $100,000 for general operating expenses. If Thompson met his total quota, the trustee would throw in an additional $1 million to the endowment, plus $250,000 for operations each year for four years, to assure other donors the museum's financial footing would be secure.

The plan by the board member, who Thompson says wishes to remain anonymous, worked.

Today, Mass MoCA's endowment has grown to $14.7 million. That, along with revenue from properties the museum renovated and rented, has put it in a different position. The once $2 million gap has become just $150,000.

Now Thompson can think about more than raising stopgap money. He can think about the future.

Spatial thinking
Walking around the campus, Thompson, sandy-haired and wearing jeans, shows off all of the undeveloped spaces. When Mass MoCA opened in 1999, it was using 208,000 square feet of the available 28-building, 13-acre Sprague site.

Renovations over the last decade have taken that number to 418,000 square feet. The museum uses some 310,000 square feet itself for galleries, stages, lobby space, and other operations. Additional space is rented to a range of tenants.

Other acquisitions have expanded the campus footprint to 18 acres, or about one-third of the downtown business district.

That space is what's on Thompson's mind as he walks across a short metal bridge connecting the museum to a pair of undeveloped buildings.

Building 8, with 2,000 square feet and large windows on either side, would make an ideal space for sculptures, he says. Over the next bridge, and he's into Building 6, the largest on the campus with 40,000 square feet on each of three floors.

"The Whitney, I think, has 25,000 square feet of exhibition space," he says, looking around at Building 6's vast raw space. "We've got 1.5 Whitneys per floor."

Right now, these old buildings are used to test installations and store old works. In one corner, there are 12 bombshells left from the Büchel exhibit. One day, Thompson hopes to create other single-artist installations in the spirit of the giant LeWitt show. That project has boosted attendance, which had fluctuated between 115,000 and 125,000 visitors over the years. Mass MoCA projects attendance will be around 145,000 when this year ends.

And out back, Thompson has his eye on a grassy field just past a parking lot. It's a rough spot right now, bordered by an old conveyer belt that looms overhead, a pile of leftover wooden beams, and a rusty fence.

"You could put tents and porta-potties there and a stage there," Thompson said, motioning with his arms.

He envisions a multistage summer music festival, three or four bands playing during the day. There would be gardens where there are now modular trailers, scrub, and brick. There could be lights on the conveyor belt.

What's holding him back from all these projects?

"It's just money," he says.

A measure of how much more secure Thompson feels about Mass MoCA is how he responds when asked about his own career plans. He's been in charge of this project for two decades. Now 50, Thompson said he's turned down museum director jobs over the years.

"Mass MoCA was too fragile," he said. "Would you want to spend 10 or 15 years of your life on a project and leave and see it shut its doors in six months? I was committed to getting this built and started and building the institution with the reasonable prospect of it being here a very long time."

And does he feel he has?

"We're getting close."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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