Massachusetts

Guide to Mass MoCA | New England’s Ultimate Art Experience

Forget everything you know about museums, and make a trip to North Adams, MA, to see art that provokes and captivates at MASS MoCA.

By Kim Knox Beckius

May 24 2018

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MASS MoCA | Guide to MASS MoCA

Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius
It’s a modern conundrum: Cellphones designed to go everywhere have made going anywhere almost optional. Why visit an art museum when millions of stunning images and decades of entertainment are at your fingertips? Well, Mass MoCA is no ordinary art repository. It’s an engaging, expansive, and evolving experience that will remind you there are still-to-be-discovered creative abilities lurking inside our minds. (It’s also an epic place to snap selfies.)

Guide to Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA

Guide to MASS MoCA | New England's Ultimate Art Experience
Mass MoCA
Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius

Mass MoCA History

How did the largest contemporary-art museum in North America wind up in North Adams, Massachusetts? The short story is: It ingeniously solved two problems. A 16-acre manufacturing complex’s 26 buildings — all but one built before the 20th century on a site where manufacturing had thrived since colonial times — suddenly became ghost factories when Sprague Electric Company closed in 1985. That’s one-third of this small city’s downtown. Five miles down the road, Williams College Museum of Art director Thomas Krens also had a dilemma: How to support contemporary artists whose works were too humongous to be exhibited within the confines of a traditional art museum? It took years of political and financial maneuvering, but from the moment North Adams mayor John Barrett III had the lightbulb idea that these funky brick buildings might somehow form a new type of art venue, a groundswell of support made the complex’s transformation inevitable. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — known simply now as Mass MoCA — opened in 1999. Expansion into Building 6 in 2017 doubled the museum’s size, ensuring there is no bigger destination on the continent for total immersion in the dynamic creations of contemporary artists.
Guide to MASS MoCA | New England's Ultimate Art Experience
Mass MoCA
Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius

Navigating Mass MoCA’s Exhibits

One of the most distinctive things about Mass MoCA is that it owns no permanent collection. Every 10 months or so, fresh art takes up residence in the museum’s enormous halls. If floor reinforcement is required to support a 15-ton Louise Bourgeois sculpture, well, this can-do museum is in the business of figuring out such logistics. There’s a vitality here that is rare in the museum world, a sense that this nearly 20-year-old museum is still in startup mode. Now that Building 6 completes the 25-year master plan that architects drew up for the site, Mass MoCA has gallery space for long-term partnerships with monumental artists like James Turrell, a visionary manipulator of light and space. Singer Drake is such a fan, the music video for “Hotline Bling” was inspired by Turrell’s art.
Guide to MASS MoCA | New England's Ultimate Art Experience
Laurie Anderson artwork at Mass MoCA
Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius

Exploring Mass MoCA in a Few Hours

Wear sneakers, move fast, and allow your senses to be overwhelmed by the variety and size of the art on exhibit in this mazelike museum. Free, beautifully designed exhibit guides available at the information desk will help you determine which artists’ works appeal to you, and you can take the guides home to read later for better understanding of the creations you’ve viewed. There is always an evocative, must-see installation in Building 5’s gigantic two-story space — and snapping Instagram photos with Sol LeWitt’s bold, geometric wall drawings is practically mandatory.
Guide to MASS MoCA | New England's Ultimate Art Experience
Natasha Bowdoin’s Maneater installation at Mass MoCA
Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius

Exploring Mass MoCA in a Day

Make reservations in advance for some of Mass MoCA’s most immersive experiences, including avant-garde superstar Laurie Anderson’s dizzying virtual reality world. You’ll be able to take a more methodical and leisurely approach to seeing all of the art housed in 250,000 square feet of bold and distinctive gallery space. Be sure to appreciate the facility’s 19th-century architectural details and to pick up colorful gifts at Hardware, the Mass MoCA gift shop.
Guide to MASS MoCA | New England's Ultimate Art Experience
A virtual reality experience at Mass MoCA
Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius

Exploring Mass MoCA in Two Days or More

In recognition of just how large the complex has become, Mass MoCA has introduced a two-day admission ticket, which allows you to return a second day during the same week. You’ll be able to linger and really internalize the impressions you get from viewing installations. Some are of such a grand scale, they will likely never be exhibited again. Bring a sketch pad or notebook to draw or jot down ideas they inspire. Unleash your inner musician in the hands-on “No Experience Required” room, featuring educator Gunnar Schonbeck’s collection of invented instruments. Check the museum’s event schedule, and time your visit to coincide with a concert or other performance.
Guide to MASS MoCA | New England's Ultimate Art Experience
The Porches Inn at Mass MoCA
Photo Credit : Courtesy of the Porches Inn

Inns and Hotels Near Mass MoCA

Stay within walking distance of Mass MoCA at the Holiday Inn Berkshires in North Adams or at the quirky and fun Porches Inn at Mass MoCA directly across the street. The latter is a retro-chic, yummy-breakfast-included inn with a transformation story to rival Mass MoCA’s: You’ll be rooming in historic Victorian row houses that were home to mill workers in the 19th century, and you’ll love the blend of vintage decor and high-tech modern amenities. After a long day of walking around the sprawling museum, the 24-hour hot tub is the best perk of all. There are dozens of additional hotels, motels, and B&Bs within a short drive of Mass MoCA. Among these, the most unusual place to stay is Bascom Lodge, a stone hideaway built atop Mount Greylock by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937. Book a bunk or a private room, and you’ll have the chance to mingle with Appalachian Trail hikers, nature lovers, tranquility seekers, and those who know the lodge is a fine place to dine on a spring, summer, or fall evening.
Guide to MASS MoCA | New England's Ultimate Art Experience
Bright Ideas Brewing in downtown North Adams
Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius

Restaurants Near Mass MoCA

Mass MoCA’s growing allure has sparked a restaurant renaissance in downtown North Adams. Just outside the museum’s front door, Bright Ideas Brewing pours its contemporary craft beers, and you can pair them with pizzas and other light bites. Artful dinners composed of locally sourced ingredients await on museum grounds, too, at Gramercy Bistro. You’re a five-to-10-minute walk from local favorites like Jack’s Hot Dog Stand, a century-old institution where dogs topped with chili or cheese will set you back only a buck and change. Try a variety of Massachusetts-crafted beers and hard ciders at relative newcomer Public, where the menu of creative pub fare is routinely shaken up (but regulars would cry if they eighty-sixed the truffle fries). Grazie is happy-hour headquarters and your destination for Italian classics and local seafood. Have you ever visited Mass MoCA? Tell us about it!

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