Making the most of opportunity: How art fueled North Adams’ revival

When plans were first hatched to open the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MASS MoCA, in North Adams, the former mill city in the Berkshires “was at the edge of a socio-economic abyss,” says Joseph Thompson, the museum’s founding director.

It was 1986. A year before, Sprague Electric Company had shuttered the manufacturing plant that employed more than one-third of North Adams’s roughly 16,000 residents. The once-bustling blue-collar city was reduced to a shell.

“In the late eighties and early nineties, anybody that could get out, got out of North Adams,” adds Jonathan Secor, director of the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

That’s not surprising given that unemployment in North Adams was pushing 18 percent—about seven times the state average at the time. That was reflected in the downtown area, where vacant storefronts outnumbered operating businesses, which occupied just 30 percent of the available spaces. Meanwhile, the factory complex that had once housed Sprague Electric sprawled across 16 acres of downtown real estate—all of which was empty.

“It cast a huge real estate shadow over the town,” says Thompson. “It was impossible to think of a vibrant North Adams without doing something with this factory complex which occupied a great part of the downtown business district.”

Thompson and his supporters, including then-state Rep. Dan Bosley―which shows the need for, and value in, electing arts champions to state office―pushed for the creation of a mixed-use cultural facility on the site with contemporary arts as the major attraction. In 1999, Thompson’s dream came to fruition when MASS MoCA opened its doors, bringing worldwide attention to North Adams and stimulating an economic rebirth that is gradually pulling the city back from the abyss.

As the Boston Globe put it in a lengthy feature story last year, “North Adams is being remade by the commerce of culture.”

With 400,000 square feet—including 150,000 square feet of gallery space—MASS MoCA plays host to massive contemporary art installations, live music, theater, dance, film, and children’s programming. With the museum as its centerpiece, North Adams now draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, who visit museums and galleries, eat, shop—and sleep—in the city.

“The visitation to the museum has grown nicely,” says Thompson. “It was 80,000 to 90,000 a year when we opened, and last year, which was sort of an unusually good year, it was 160,000, but even in more average years we’re getting between 120,000 and 130,000 visits a year.

“Those people are spending time and staying overnight,” adds the museum director. “I think there was one motel in business when we started construction here, now I think there are 180 or 190 rooms that have opened since the opening of MASS MoCA. That’s a lot of hotel activity.”

Spurred by MASS MoCA’s success, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts seized upon the theme of cultural commerce, and added undergraduate degree programs in arts and arts management. The school also founded the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center 10 years ago to connect the college to the cultural community. The Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, in turn, opened Gallery 51 in one of the previously vacant storefronts in North Adams; Gallery 51 is just one of many art spaces that have since opened in downtown North Adams. The Berkshire Cultural Resource Center also created MCLA Presents, a performing arts series, and in an effort to lure MASS MoCA visitors downtown, launched DownStreet Art, a seasonal public arts festival that regularly draws 20,000 new visitors each year.  

“For DownStreet Art almost every business downtown has come on as a contributor because they have seen empty storefronts turn into pop-up galleries, which, in turn, has led to permanent year-round business,” says Secor. “On DownStreet Art Thursdays, which take place the last Thursday of every month from June through October, local restaurants will quadruple their sales. The candy place, it's one of their best nights of the month. The antique shop usually will do well over a couple thousand dollars in sales in antiques. So yes people come out for the art, and yes we try and make the art as exciting and innovating as we can, but we also are delighted when they eat, drink, spend money.”

Both Thompson and Secor emphasize that a creative economy is no quick fix—nor the sole fix—for the economic stagnation that has plagued North Adams. Unemployment persists—although Thompson says it’s now at about 1.5 percent higher than the state average. But with tourism up and a 70 percent occupancy rate now in downtown stores, Thompson estimates that the opening of MASS MoCA accelerated North Adams’ recovery by about a decade.

Still, both men take the long view, advising patience and continued investment in the city’s creative economy.

“MASS MoCA has certainly accelerated the economic revitalization of North Adams,” says Thompson, “but even so, these are generational projects.”

“I think what I've discovered with North Adams is, slow and steady wins the race,” Secor concurs. “North Adams is coming back. It’s a vibrant place, and it will be much more vibrant, but you really need to be in it for the long haul. There's no magic fix. The creative economy is a major component, and culture's a major component, in the growth, but it's not the sole solution. A big piece of this has been the thoughtfulness which went into the investment in the creative economy. This was no accident. It took deliberate planning, strategic investment, and targeted outreach to artists. If nothing else, this shows the need for coordinated statewide advocacy along the lines of what we’ve seen from MASSCreative.”

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