The contemporary art that's been largely confined to the campus of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is being loosed upon the city it calls home this summer.
Work began last week in preparation for Sunday's grand opening of Building 6, a monumental renovation that doubled the amount of gallery space and made Mass MoCA the largest contemporary art museum in the world. The installations are in conjunction with some pop-up retail, signage and landscaping meant to direct museum patrons beyond the 16-acre campus.
It's an effort to take a "second bite of the apple," said Executive Director Joseph Thompson last week, by building on the excitement of the museum's expansion to build a stronger relationship to the city.
"It's another moment that North Adams can put itself forward," he said "That started the North Adams Exchange idea."
The museum's tried some connections in the past but not at this level. The idea was inspired in part by a visit last summer by Karen Hopkins, longtime Brooklyn Academy of Music president who had selected Mass MoCA for a case study during her fellowship with the Mellon Foundation.
One thing she stressed, Thompson said, was that the regional focus on marketing for Mass MoCA not overshadow North Adams' potential.
"What she said was, 'from my eyes and my taste North Adams is the interesting place,'" he said. "North Adams feels different, it's got all the raw, edgy qualities of a small city."
One thing that stuck with him was Hopkins' description of how Brooklyn had been promoted. The focus had been on Manhattan -- how it was so close. "For 15 years they talked about Brooklyn in relation to Manhattan," he said. "It was only when they turned to say Brooklyn was different, diverse, affordable ... trying to describe what was the magic of Brooklyn, Brooklyn took off."
To that end, large cranes blocked streets last week as crews installed a ring of LED lights on the four highest steeples that would make them blink out a verse by Henry David Thoreau in Morse code.
"It's not a fireworks show but I particularly like it when the churches begin talking to each other," Thompson said.
On River Street, five cargo pods with projectors inside were installed on tube framing to project an illuminated work by artist Jenny Holzer.
Where the light show of churches and Mass MoCA's clocktower talking to each other in coded verse has a local historical angle -- Thoreau wrote the verse atop Mount Greylock — Holzer's light projection is more biting as it brings home descriptions of war in large lettering across the length of the museum's north side.
"Cloudland" runs through the summer while Holzer's work, "For North Adams, 2017," runs Wednesdays through Sundays from dusk to 11 through June 25, the weekend that the Solid Sound Festival returns.
"We're using the moment to articulate the entire campus and make it more clear for visitors and adding signage and seating, having more places to hang out really," Thompson said. "Visitors will discover a new lawn we've planted in Courtyard D and we've extended outside the campus."
Upwards of 10,000 people were at Mass MoCA on Sunday, with nearly 7,000 attending the Cake concert. To get more of those people downtown, the museum's pitched tents at the former Mohawk Center parking lot and scattered sound installations around town, including the mechanical musical instrument by New Orleans Airlift at the corner of Marshall and Main.
There are potential plans to demolish the so-called Leu building and redevelop the area but that's years away and millions of dollars. Instead, the museum's using thousands of dollars from fundraising for the tents, signage and landscaping.
"Corraling the retail, food and activity, that's really the hard work," Thompson said. He credited the city and some of the "new blood" like Ben Lamb and Suzy Helme for stepping up. "Once they said they would take that on, we said we'd do the structure."
A significant change is opening the space under the Memorial Bridge that had been messy and overgrown and laying down white stone.
"Why we didn't think of that 10 years ago ... when you were standing in the parking lot, it was psychologically a little daunting," he said. "It was dark and overgrown and there was broken glass you literally couldn't get there because of the fence but you didn't want to get there."
But the work under the bridge meant that another public art piece was painted over, and that has some in the community upset.
Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger's "Harmonic Bridge" had been installed back in 1998 underneath the span. The work picks up sound in the key of C and piped out through a box on either side that sounds like chanting. Part of the work was painting the columns beside in the boxes in gray.
About five years, however, a community group and local children painted images from pillow patterns made by Arnold Printworks on one set of columns; they following year, they replicated mill children photographed by Lewis Hine.
"They were originally painted as part of the 'Harmonic Bridge' installation in 1998," Thompson said. "We maintained them from time to time ... it's a subtle gray to match the concrete sound installation."
In a letter to the editor, one of the leaders of the community painting effort decried the loss of history and art.
"I vacillate between angry and sad now every day, but my heart goes out to the residents of the city," Christina King wrote.
Thompson said it was a complicated issue. The museum wasn't aware of the community project until it was started and then was under the impression it would only be up a few years. The original artists have been asking when 'Harmonic Bridge' would be restored. This seemed to be the right time to do it.
"I know it's hard," he said. "Every year, at Mass MoCA we go through the emotional turmoil of taking down or painting over thousands of square feet of art we've fallen in love with I know the pain of that."
Thompson said he reached out to coordinator Gail Sellers (Sellers confirmed that) and told her what would happen and that the paintings would be documented. He said he didn't realize it had also been a school project.
"I wish I would have gotten through to the actual teachers and the kids who did the work themselves so they would understand," he said. "I think it would have stung a little less."
northadams.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.