Preservation Magazine, Summer 2017

A Contemporary Art Museum Leverages Its Historic Roots

The interior of Building 8 at MASS MoCA features a long term exhibit by Spencer Finch.

photo by: Douglas Mason

The newly expanded Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams reveals unexpected parallels between contemporary art and historic preservation.

“Art is driven by space, light, rhythm, and progression,” explains Jason Forney, principal at Cambridge-based architecture firm Bruner/Cott & Associates, which has led the museum’s three-phase renovation and expansion since the 1990s. “We tried to highlight and frame those elements within the original architecture.”

The concept for MASS MoCA was born in 1986, when staffers at nearby Williams College were looking for space to show oversize art installations, and the mayor of North Adams was exploring solutions to return economic vitality to the declining industrial town. Their ideas converged at the vacant campus of Arnold Print Works, a network of 26 brick 19th-century manufacturing buildings that are joined by elevated passages.

The third phase, which wrapped up this past spring, provides 130,000 square feet of newly rehabilitated, long-term exhibit space, including the second level of Building 8 (shown). Constructed between 1897 and 1901, this is the museum’s smallest building, at 5,600 square feet. To put it in perspective, the size of each floor in the adjacent Building 6, also part of Phase III, is equivalent to an acre. The completion of the entire project places MASS MoCA among the largest contemporary art museums in the country.

Building 8’s current exhibition, artist Spencer Finch’s Cosmic Latte, encompasses 150 light fixtures and 417 LED light bulbs, pigmented and arranged to represent the Milky Way.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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