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Mass MoCA's Larry Smallwood displays an illustration of the planned information totems.

Mass MoCA Looking to Orient Visitors, Send Them Downtown

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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A life-size mockup of a wayfaring sign.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Thousands of visitors are headed for the city this summer and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts is hoping to push as many as it can into the downtown.

The museum opens its $65 million renovation of the massive Building 6 that will double its gallery and events space this May and welcomes back the Solid Sound Festival and Freshgrass.

The two music festivals alone will bring up to 13,000 people total for two weekends at the sprawling former Sprague Electric campus. The museum's attendance has soared past 150,000 and the completion of Phase III will likely push it higher.

One effort is to make sure visitors know where they are and where they're going.

"We've had about 100,000 people who've been upset over being lost over the past 20 years," joked Mass MoCA Deputy Director Larry Smallwood at Monday's Mass MoCA Commission meeting.

The museum's proposing to install wayfaring signs around its property, and possibly one on city property, to orient visitors, get them to the front entrance and direct them downtown.

The Planning Board on Monday signed off on the rugged steel-plate totems that will stand 6 feet high. At 14 inches wide and 2 inches thick, the rusty totems should be readily visible to help guide patrons into the complex; on the way out, they'll direct them downtown.

Each one will have a map, with the totems in the interior having a campus map and those on the periphery a map of the city. Locations will be limited to places unlikely to move — City Hall, for instance, or "shopping district."

"We want to get landmarks to help people navigate around the city," explained Smallwood, adding to the Planning Board "it's not just to get people in, it's to get people out."

Further signs within the complex will help visitors find their way through the massive museum. "Mass MoCA is a terribly confusing place," Smallwood told the Planning Board. Engineering work on the foundations has to be done before permits can be pulled, he said.

A Monday's meeting Mayor Richard Alcombright asked if technology could be integrated into the totems as a way to direct people more specifically to local businesses.

Smallwood said the museum now uses an app so people can orient themselves on Google map inside the buildings and available through a Bluetooth. Markers to areas of local interest could be added to the map so when people zoom out, they show up.

The mayor wondered if more information could be added similar to what he found using a map in Boston. "Wouldn't it be cool if it said 4-minute walk, 12-minute drive," he said, noting it would encourage people wander through the downtown rather than moving cars around.

Smallwood wasn't sure if that could be done but noted that "Bus Stop," by Victoria Palermo, on Main Street and the new home of former "Tree Logic" trees at Colegrove Park are included on the app.

A second effort will focus off-campus installations or events, including those Colegrove trees. As part of the North Adams Exchange, Mass MoCA will develop some light installations and some sound art, and update "Harmonic Bridge" located on Marshall Street under the Memorial Bridge.

Museum director Joseph Thomas said a "music box," a small shed that's actually a musical instrument, could be located downtown or at Colegrove. It's part of an installation of musical architecture from New Orleans being planned this summer.  

The ideas are the museum's part of an initiative called the North Adams Exchange in partnership with the city. The evening illumination installation and the music box would push visitors downtown; a third part would be a retail option that would pull them into or toward the downtown.

Smallwood said it's not clear what that would be. It could incorporate some of the Mass MoCA gift shop but it wouldn't make sense to replicate exactly what's in the lobby.

A future concept is using the Leu building, the former Mohawk center on Marshall Street, as a way to link the museum campus with the Main Street. The museum foundation acquired the vacant structure — and the Subway shop — with the idea of turning it over to the commission to reuse or remove.

"There's a possibility to build a park that's a connection between MoCA and downtown ... or make it a combination of a maker's mill or assets for artists," said Smallwood.

There's been interest in the temporary artist studio idea, rentals and the development of an art supply store, but the first option is one that was put forward in 2014 to replace the building with a park.

The city had put forward the museum's concept for a $6.8 million MassWorks grant but didn't get it.

Thompson noted the museum had just received a major grant. "The feedback back was positive, but it was a bit early," he said. "It was a significant project. ... that was essentially making it a public park."

The plans are still available and could be resubmitted. In the short term, the area will be looked at for use during the North Adams Exchange.

Tags: mass moca,   Planning Board,   signage,   

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