Not every town in the US is as lucky as North Adams, MA. This former industrial outpost in western Massachusetts lost its major employer when Sprague Electric closed its doors in 1985 (putting 4,000 people out of work). Fourteen years and over $30 million later, MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) opened on May 30, 1999, putting the town back on the map and pulling in almost 100,000 visitors in its first six months.
As the largest contemporary arts center in the country, MASS MoCA occupies over 220,000 sq. ft. of space with multiple galleries, theatres, and rehearsal studios. There is also 60,000 sq. ft. set aside for high-tech commercial tenants such as special effects-experts Kleiser-Walczak, which is located in one of the historic buildings.
To date, six of the 27 red brick structures on the site have been reclaimed, preserving the rugged industrial vocabulary of their past. The 13-acre complex, listed on the National Historic Register, is strategically located at the confluence of two branches of the Hoosic River and has been used for manufacturing concerns since the late 1700s.
The idea to transform the abandoned site into an arts center came about in 1986, one year after Sprague closed. Thomas Krens, director of the Williams College Museum of Art in nearby Williamstown (and now director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York), was one of the first people to envision an exhibit space for large-scale works of art. His colleague Joseph Thompson, who was named founding director of the Mass MoCA project early on, began to build state and local support for the project. It took 13 years to realize and the project changed shape considerably, but by 1992, Bruner/Cott & Associates of Cambridge, MA, was named project architect, after various feasibility studies had been completed.
Among other changes, Thompson added an ambitious performing arts program. "One of our smartest moves was to hire Jonathan Secor and a team of performing arts and production professionals, which brought a powerful--and unique--set of skills to a museum context," Thompson says.
Thompson and Secor, MASS MoCA's director of the performing arts, established quite an ambitious program for the inaugural season, which ran from May through October 1999. It included such events as Jet Lag by The Builder's Association, Elizabeth Streb, Paul Taylor, and Monsters of Grace, as well as outdoor concerts and film screenings.
"It was an incredible push from November 1998 until opening night," says Larry Smallwood, production manager at MASS MoCA. He had just six months in the vast facility to prepare for the first season, which utilized multiple spaces (two indoor spaces described below, as well as an outdoor festival stage with an audience capacity of 2,000, and an outdoor film theatre with 500 seats) and was technically challenging.
The largest of the MASS MoCA venues is the Hunter Center for the Performing Arts (or B11 Theatre), a 10,000-sq.-ft. black box that serves as themain stage. The space has clear dimensions of 120' x 80', with a vertical height of 30', 4" to the underside of the grid and 35' to the roof.
There are windows along one of the 120' original brick walls, and two of the other walls are homosote painted black. The floor is a sprung membrane tongue-and-groove construction with a plywood subfloor and 5/8" MDF top surface with clear polyurethane finish. I. Weiss provided the various soft goods, which include lined, black velour tracking curtains that measure 120' x 30' and can be used to mask the windows.
Seating capacity and stage size vary according to the desired configuration, with some possible variables ranging from 650 chairs placed on Wenger Versalite-3000 platforms (MASS MoCA owns 240 4' x 8' units used for both risers and staging) for proscenium-style dance performances, nightclub seating for 550, film screenings for 750, or an audience of 900 standing for a concert. A 20' drawbridge in one corner of the space allows a forklift to move extra chairs and risers (as well as scenery) to an adjacent building.
The repertory install for the main stage includes seven electrics, each 60' wide and built of 20" Tomcat truss with a hanging capacity of 1,100 distributed pounds per truss. Additional 12" box trusses, 10' long, can augment the overhead grid. All of the Tomcat truss is hung from 321/2-ton CM Lodestar motors with motor control from a portable Motion Labs 8 controller. The trussing can be reconfigured as desired in the space.
Also designed for ultimate flexibility is the lighting system, which includes one ETC Expression 3 console with 400 channels and four 48 x 2.4kW ETC Sensor touring dimmer racks. The fixture inventory includes 160 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, 72 ETC Source Four PARs with full lens sets, two ETC 10-degree Source Fours, and eight three-cell Altman Sky Cycs with 1kW lamps. The lighting equipment was provided by Barbizon of Woburn, MA.
This inventory can be augmented with equipment from the smaller laboratory theatre. "We also sometimes rent scrollers and moving lights," says Smallwood, who points out that the infrastructure for the space also includes 10 aluminum lighting ladders provided by I. Weiss (five per side of the room) that track on a Unistrut channel. "Nothing is permanently installed," Smallwood adds. "Everything is portable, and we can move things around as needed." Power distribution at each corner of the space adds to its flexibility.
"Sound in this theatre was a challenge due to the raw size of the space and the exposed mechanicals. The large amount of curtains and homosote remedy most of the problem. Speaker positions and great sound engineers manage the rest of it," says Smallwood.
Designed by consultant David Schnirman, and provided by Sound Associates of Yonkers, NY, the front-of-house audio system has a Yamaha M3000-40 mixing console, eight Meyer Sound self-powered speakers (four MTS-4s, two 650-P subwoofers, and two CQ-2s), and signal processing by Yamaha. The monitor system includes an additional Yamaha console, eight EV X-Array XW12 speakers, eight Crown amplifiers, and Yamaha digital processing.
A selection of over 50 different microphones includes models by Shure, Sennheiser, EV, Crown, Beyer, AKG, and Countryman. The intercom system by Clear-Com has a four-channel MS-440 base station and 10 headsets. The room is also equipped with 35mm and 70mm film projection equipment as well as a Sanyo 9000 video projector that can be moved in when needed. An infrared hearing assistance system was also provided by Sound Associates.
Control positions for lighting and sound can be placed at the top of the seating arrangements, although there is an official control booth hidden behind two old factory doors. "This is where the second floor of the space used to be," says Smallwood, "but we've only used the booth for film projection as yet." Industrial-style metal halide work lights in the space echo its factory origins.
The smaller Building 10 Theatre is a more intimate room, measuring just 3,500 sq. ft. (70' long x 50' wide) with a seating capacity of 220. "Wooden flats serve as plugs to mask the windows to make a black space," says Smallwood, adding that there are great views of the overall facility from those upper-story windows. This room has a ceiling height of 17'. The exposed wooden roof beams have pipe battens attached to provide lighting positions. "We tried to impact the architecture as little as possible, yet have ultimate flexibility," says Smallwood. A Genie lift is used to hang equipment in the smaller space.
Lighting equipment for the smaller space includes an ETC Express console with 192 channels, one 24 x 2.4k ETC Sensor dimmer pack, 26 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, and 12 ETC Source Four PARs. The audio system has a 24 x 8 Allen & Heath G130 mixing console, four Meyer Sound UPA1P self-powered speakers, and Yamaha digital signal processing, as well as a mix of Shure, Sennheiser, Crown, Beyer, AKG, and Countryman microphones.
One of the 19 art galleries at MASS MoCA is as long as a football field (300' x 60') and currently houses Robert Rauschenberg's "The 1/4-Mile or 2-Furlong Piece" (the only other space large enough to house it is the Guggenheim-Bilbao in Spain). Smallwood consulted on the lighting for the gallery spaces as well, combining theatrical and architectural concepts in rooms where motion detectors control the lights in the galleries.
In the galleries, daylight combines with 250W metal halide lamps, LSI track fixtures, GE museum-style 50W PARs with diffusers, and low-voltage PAR-36s. Control for these spaces is provided by ETC Sensor dimmers and a Unison control system with a DMX network. A major concern in the galleries is the intensity of the light. "We aimed for an environmental control that is good for works of art on paper and photography, as well as large sculpture installations," says Smallwood, who notes there is no more than 20fc on any piece of art. Wendy Luedtke served as associate lighting designer for the museum lighting.
"The mission of MASS MoCA is art everywhere, so that's what we do," Smallwood adds. "Performances are inside and outside with very quick turnovers and alternate rain sites planned for the outdoor performances." A three-man tech crew (hired locally from North Adams) includes: Don Williams, sound; Mike Pontier, carpentry; and Tom Craw, electrics.
"The buildings were empty for 12 years, so it was quite a big renovation project," comments Smallwood, on a tour of the facility that revealed its huge size and seemingly unlimited potential. "Only a tiny portion of the campus is used now," says Smallwood. "There remain three times as many buildings to be renovated." One hopes that MASS MoCA will continue its trailblazing task of urban renewal, and the revitalization of these historic remnants of America's great industrial age.