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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

February 25, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: Mass MOCA

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On two reasons you should visit the great museum any time, and one reason to do so ASAP.
The small town of North Adams isn’t just home to the histories about which I wrote in yesterday’s post: it also hosts a unique institution of public higher education, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA); and an even more unique museum, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA). Housed in a sprawling complex of former industrial buildings that date back more than two centuries and have received National Historic Register status, and making excellent use of the specifics of that space (many of which feel as if they could still house the factory floors and workers who once occupied them), Mass MOCA rivals the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in combining the universal appeal of an art museum with the specific identity of a site and its histories. I know North Adams isn’t exactly next door for most of us, but if you find yourself in either the New York or Boston areas with room for a daytrip, Mass MOCA is well worth your time.
That’s true not only because of the museum’s unique location and identity, but also because of how it presents its modern art exhibitions. I can’t put it any more clearly than does the museum’s own mission statement: “If conventional museums are boxes, MASS MoCA strives instead to be an open platform—a welcoming environment that encourages free exchange between the making of art and its display, between the visual and performing arts, and between our extraordinary historic factory campus and the patrons, workers and tenants who again inhabit it. That is, we strive to make the whole cloth of art—making, presentation, and public participation—a seamless continuum.” I agree with every word of that, and would add this: in my admittedly limited experience, “modern art” has tended to be equated, by (it felt to me) the institutions and artists themselves, with “snobby and difficult to understand,” with an audience experience that is at least as uncomfortable or uncertain as it is engaged or (dare I say it) entertained. I was certainly challenged by much of what I encountered at Mass MOCA, but I was also consistently engaged and entertained, and I would say that complements the museum’s stated mission very nicely.
Those are reasons to visit Mass MOCA any time, but I have to add one reason to go within the next few weeks if you’re able: Brooklyn-based artist Teresita Fernández’s amazing exhibition “As Above So Below,” which runs through March. I’m a big believer in the power of words, but I don’t think my words here can begin to do justice to the unique and potent effect of Fernández’s works, especially when combined with Mass MOCA’s spaces and settings (with which Fernández clearly worked to plan and create a number of the works included in the exhibition). If you get a chance to see the exhibition, I can’t recommend it enough; if you don’t, there’s a video intro at this site, and apparently a 96-page hardcover accompanying catalogue you can try to get your hands on as well. But like Mass MOCA overall, this exhibition is particularly striking and special when you’re inside of it.
Next history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

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