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Sue Bush
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MoJo Chronicle

By Mark Mulherrin
07:12AM / Thursday, April 05, 2007

Artist and columnist Mark Mulherrin
Welcome to Mojo Chronicle, a monthly column focused on the up-front and behind-the-scenes workings of the regional arts community and written by artist Mark Mulherrin.

In his book “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” Henry Miller said “Artists don’t thrive in colonies, ants do.”

It’s funny that quote should occur in what was generally a loving and poignant description of the place he called home for twenty years. Big Sur at the time was an isolated collection of shacks with a lot of space between them; the nearest town was twenty miles away.

Everybody Wants To Fit In Paradise

Known for years as an artist colony, Miller describes its residents as a collection of cranks and misfits, seers and eccentrics. This was in the forties and the fifties when people who were different tended to band together out of necessity. On the weekends, he said, the tourists would invariably come from L.A. and San Francisco to see the ‘artists’. Miller being by far the most famous resident at the time, notorious for a book that wouldn’t be published in the United States for another twenty years, was mainly the one people tried to see. He recalls answering his door one day with the kettle boiling and a crying baby on his arm to find a young man who claimed to be looking for the cult of “Sex and Anarchy”.

“If you find it let me know”, he replied wistfully.

Omaha: The Next Big Canvas?

Hungry for a sandwich and a bit of the zeitgeist I found
myself at the Cup and Saucer with a grilled cheese and the Sunday
Times. There were three items in there that caught my eye and
related somewhat directly to a few stockpots that have been simmering
in my own brain kitchen. The first thing was an article about L.A. and it’s cultural offerings and how hard it is to get people to think of L.A. as a cultural destination, lagging in numbers (and profits) way behind New York say, or Paris.

The second thing was an article about the “hot” art scene in… Omaha, Nebraska. The third thing was an ad for Massachusetts as a tourist destination.

This was the one that really got me.

The Rebirth

The ad was about a quarter of a page and showed a color photograph
of a family, the proverbial Mom, Dad and Sis, in their bathing suits
holding brightly colored towels and beach toys with their dripping
suits and sandy feet standing, for some strange reason, in the Boston
Museum of Fine Arts perusing a wall of gilt framed old master
paintings. Had they been swimming in Boston harbor? More likely they
had heard the old wive’s tale that the sublime, golden light emanating from the Rembrandts was so powerful, after several hours you could get a fabulous tan.

We are witness right now to the birth of a new community
struggling to define itself within the matrix of a much older one.
There have been artists in North Adams for a long time, but there have never been so many of them. The term "Artist" may be defined pretty vaguely as being any person possessing the faculties to claim this nomenclature as their identity. The term is much more an expression of identity than a description of any particular activity, I would say. It is a complicated business.

The cultural tourism thing has been a staple in the Berkshires for many decades, way ahead of Omaha. It was set into motion in our town over 15 years ago when MASS MoCA was but a twinkle in Thomas Krens eye.

The Result

If you build it they will come. Well, the artists came, anyway. At this point it seems we’re all looking at each other going "O.K., now what?"

Through the bounteous missives of what is being called the "forum”, a lot of ideas are being generated for anything from a dog park to a plein air painting group to a candidate for city council. I think it’s great. There really does need to be a little more activism generally on the part of artists to engage with things besides making the blue shape a little pinker.

The range of intentions, however, can be a little confusing. So it is with cultural tourism.

Keep That Day Job - Even If You Have Talent

Municipalities found out a long time ago that they can use artists as a kind of bait to increase their prestige and hence their tax base
through a variety of means and it is an historical fact that people at the lower end of the food chain, which would include most working
artists, are the first to get priced out.

To put it bluntly, I figure every instance that North Adams is mentioned in the New York Times as a cultural destination the resale value of my house goes up at least a hundred bucks.

The best I could hope for is to sell the thing in twenty
years and move to Nicaragua and keep painting. Big Sur is way too
expensive now.

Postscript: I will be away this month to wander in the Mojave desert.

The next Mojo installment will be a story I wrote about the time I smoked cigarettes with Peter Schjeldahl in back of the Clark. A kind of rerun. Hope you enjoy it.

See you under the twinkly elks.

MM. 07
Your Comments
Post Comment
Here's where your thinking may be awry, Ed, there is already a Northern Berkshires economic issue resulting from the inflated rents in the city and surrounding communities that are a result of state and federal housing subsidies based on Boston rents.
The working class, including working class artists, are already "priced out" of many decent living spaces. $10, $11, $12 an hour "day jobs" don't cover the $700,$800,$900 rents being charged locally. Only those with subsidies can consider those rents, because their "share" is often $150 or less. The government, through the taxpaeyrs, foot the rest of the bill. The rent issue doesn't impact the artist who is in and out of a place like MASS MoCA, but certainly ALREADY affects artists trying to live, work, and show their art here.
Remember very, very few local artists are invited to show at MASS MoCA.
Make some calls, find out what the new downtown condos are selling for, take a tour of the available rental properties in the city and find out for yourself what rents are for the better places. I cannot understand how anyone would think that an abundance of "unused real estate" would be a catalyst for affordability in a region where the costs of living have outpaced incomes for the past 40 years. This area will not bring in a much-needed health clinic because of an ill-concieved desire to mollify private practice physicians, MASS MoCA was permitted to turn itself into a one-stop compound with restaurants and a housewares store within it's fenced perimeters,[what's next, a clothing store?] and a convenient inn right next door, with the museum itself acting as a barricade between the inn and the downtown. Living units with no yard or decent parking are usually selling for $180,000 and up. Does this sound like the tide is flowing toward a region awash in affordability?
And by the way, what's up with the glut of "artist housing" being developed around these parts? Try finding a basic, half-way habitable deleaded, affordable three-bedroom apartment for a family of five with two working parents and a $150 a week day care bill. Will we be better served if our children wear smocks and berets, and we start marketing their colorful bt meaningless scribbles as "comtemporary art?"

from: barbon: 04-14 00:00:00-2007

A friend from New York keeps telling me that North Adams will suffer the same fate as SoHo, Dumbo, Williamsburg, etc. -- artists will make the place fasionable, intrepreneurs will then make it a "destination," and speculators will take advantage of the localized real estate boom to make a killing, driving the original artists (and the original population) out of town.

I keep arguing that there's a huge difference betwenn SoHo and North Adams. Principally, that North Adams has a ton of unused real estate, preventing that kind of war over land. God, I hope I'm right.
from: Ed Sedarbaumon: 04-14 00:00:00-2007

I will be interested to read your Peter Schjeldahl installament as his unique combination of pessimism and passion for art somehow continues to plow through the tired question of what is art. In a recent article about abstract art, Schjeldahl counters Picasso's assertion that there is no abstract art with the idea that best abstract artists "countered with jolting demonstrations of art's intrinsic powers, independent of worldly reference." So, somehow, art is supposed to be above and beyond civic engagmentment, community developemnt, and property values. Yet, it doesn't exactly work out that way...
from: Rebeccaon: 04-11 00:00:00-2007

"OK, now what?" My sentiments exactly!
from: Jon: 04-09 00:00:00-2007

You know what is rather eerie? Hieronymus Bosch and Henry Miller are two of my favorite artists; Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus, and "...Heaven and Hell" are pieces of work that remain forever from my youth. Thanks for the great column. It was enjoyable and refreshing.
from: Shawn Godfreyon: 04-05 00:00:00-2007

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