image description
Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson at a preview of Building 6 in 2017. The museum's founding director announced he will be stepping down in October to become special consul.

Thompson Stepping Down as Director of Mass MoCA

Staff ReportsPrint Story | Email Story
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's first — and so far only — director is stepping down after leading the nation's largest contemporary museum for more than three decades.
 
Joseph Thompson, who has been at Mass MoCA's helm since its founding in 1988, announced Friday his plans to step down as director. He will stay on for the next 12 months as special counsel to the Board of Trustees. In this new role, Thompson said he will focus on institutional advancement and special projects. The Board of Trustees plans to conduct a search for a new permanent director considering both internal and external candidates.
 
 Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Tracy Moore has been appointed to serve as interim director beginning Oct. 29. Moore has more than 18 years of experience in contemporary art museum programming, management, and leadership. She joined museum in 2019 and has overseen finance and operations.
 
 Thompson, in a statement issued Friday afternoon, said it was time for him to step away from the day-to-day management and that he would focus on transition planning, institutional advancement, and capacity-building.
 
"Mass MoCA has deeply talented staff, strong governance, a vibrant program, large audiences, and a starter endowment in place," he said. "While we've achieved much over the past few decades, there remains programmatic innovation, still to come. Our core work in commissioning and supporting the most important art of our time is – by definition – an endlessly renewable project. We've barely touched the 17 acres of outdoor grounds, and while we have an exciting and newly conceived Master Plan in place, two of our most important and strategically situated buildings remain to be programmed and renovated." 
 
Thompson's involvement began when the museum was just the germ of an idea as an auxiliary exhibition space for the Williams College Museum of Art,  where he began his career as preparator and exhibitions designer. With then-WCMA Director Thomas Krens, the sprawling and vacant Sprague Electric campus was reimagined as a home for large-scale contemporary art and changing exhibitions. It took more than a decade to raise funds and cleanup and begin the buildout on what would become Mass MoCA. Thompson was named founding director in 1988 and would be there to finally open the museum in 1999.
 
The institution hosted more than 10,000 artists, working across all media. Annual visitation has grown from 60,000 in the early years of the museum, to 300,000 per year (pre-COVID-19), close to 25 times the population of its hometown, according to museum officials. The developed footprint of the 24-building factory campus has grown from 200,000 square feet in five buildings, to 550,000 square feet in 17 buildings, making Mass MoCA the largest institution in the United States devoted to new art. 
 
Major exhibitions include those by Sol LeWitt (co-organized with the Yale University Art Gallery and the Williams College Museum of Art with loans of 25 years from over 50 lenders), Laurie Anderson, Jenny Holzer, Anselm Kiefer (co-organized with the Hall Art Foundation with a loan of 15 years), and James Turrell (whose major 25-year retrospective installation includes examples from all seven decades of his career, and every major category of his work on loan for 25 years). 
 
And the annual Teen Invitational that exhibits works in a range of media from high and middle schools students from across the region.
 
The museum would become known for the performers it hosts as much as the art that it displays. It's home to Solid Sound, an every other summer, three-day music event curated by the band Wilco, and the annual (except for this year) Fresh Grass festival. In conjunction with David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, Thompson co-founded the annual Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival. Performances have included both well-known and rising stars, including Beck, Benjamin Clementine, Annie Lennox, The Pretenders, The National, Patti Smith, Maggie Rogers, Sinkane, Dr. John, Flying Lotus, Car Seat Headrest, Vampire Weekend, Adia Victoria, and George Clinton. 
 
MoCA under his direction has also nurtured an artist in residency program, created the popular KidSpace, and developed, in conjunction with the trustees and Jack Wadsworth, commercial real estate holdings that support 18 percent of the museum's programs and operating costs. Some of the holdings have been developed with community in mind, such as UNO Park and the greenspace created on Marshall Street at the former Mohawk Center.
 
It hasn't all be easy, though and the museum's had its share of ups and downs. It weathered its early years in creating a reputation, survived the Great Recession (and should make it through the pandemic) and won a lawsuit brought by disaffected artist. More locally, MoCA became involved in a dispute over the so-called "pillar art" when Thompson had children's artwork on bridge columns painted over as a restoration of an existing piece in time for the opening of Building 6 and is himself the subject of a criminal case in a fatal accident that's working its way through the court. 
 
Through Thompson's leadership, the museum has doubled in size and become a major economic catalyst to the region, something the director has stressed continually when speaking about MoCA's place in the community. The unemployment rate for North Adams was nearing 20 percent, seven times higher than the state average when MoCA opened; by 2019, pre-COVID local unemployment had fallen to 6.4 percent, or about 1.4 times the state average. The inventory of hotel rooms in North Adams has grown to 245 keys, up from a total of 16 motel rooms in the early 1990s. In addition to business activity generated by its commercial tenants, by 2019 the museum itself sparked $52 million in new economic activity every year (and over $700 million cumulatively, including investments in buildings and infrastructure), totaling many times the state's public investment of $60 million over 20 years. 
 
"We are grateful for everything Joe has done to build and invigorate Mass MoCA," said Timur Galen, chair of the museum foundation's board of trustees, in the statement. "His dedication, innovation and leadership have made Mass MoCA a premier site for the creation and enjoyment of contemporary art, in all forms. On behalf of the entire Board and organization, we thank Joe for his decades as Director and his continued partnership in this new role. Mass MoCA's deep connections to the community through educational programs present endless room to innovate, as does our mission to be a place-maker and economic catalyst for North Adams."
 
Thompson said he would be devoting the next 12 months to working with colleagues on "several important initiatives underway" as the trustees seek a new director. 
 
"I know of no other institution specifically founded with a two-fold mission to be a platform for new art, but also to use that creative energy to spark economic growth and community redevelopment," he said. "That's a noble mission in today's world. At the end of the day, strong, sustainable institutions are about people, values, shared passions, and a disciplined work ethic. We in the arts and culture business know how deeply and directly the arts — and creativity in general — can fuel community development and commercial vitality. Mass MoCA and North Adams demonstrate that every day. 
 
"I've been lucky to work with so many spirited colleagues and supporters over the years who understand this dynamic deep in their bones. But that work is just getting started. If anything, MASS MoCA's future opportunities exceed its achievements to date – but that's for the next person to realize, someone with a fresh point of view, expanded social and cultural networks, and new energy."

Tags: mass moca,   

3 Comments
iBerkshires.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue; please keep comments focused on the issues and not on personalities. Profanity, obscenity, racist language and harassment are not allowed. iBerkshires reserves the right to ban commenters or remove commenting on any article at any time. Concerns may be sent to info@iberkshires.com.

Northern Berkshire United Way Sets Fundraising Goal for 2020-21

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Northern Berkshire United Way kicked off its annual campaign drive on Wednesday under much changed conditions from last year. 
 
Instead of the traditional breakfast at the Williams Inn, the nonprofit agency switched to remote but with still the same confidence that it will raise $490,000 to support its many member agencies. 
 
Even with the prolonged novel coronavirus pandemic, NBUW and its supporting partners came close to last year's goal. 
 
"A year ago at this time, we told you that we wanted to raise $490,000, and we did raise $480,000," said Executive Director Christa Collier. "We just fell a little short because we couldn't have one of our major events. 
View Full Story

More North Adams Stories