FROM The Attic — for a Kinder, Cooler America

NORTH ADAMS, MA — On another steambath August afternoon, the Berkshires’ summer crowd wonders what next. Beethoven and Bach at Tanglewood? The Norman Rockwell Museum — again? Well, we could always drop by Edith Wharton’s Victorian home. But wait! Here’s something slightly different.

Lasers beamed above brick walls? Spangled LEDs filling a rusty factory walkway? Soaring ceilings above flashing dystopian videos? Trees planted in an industrial courtyard — upside down? Welcome to Mass MoCA!

Since the last year of the last century, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has been spinning dreams and defying expectations. Along with boosting a dying industrial town, Mass MoCA has redefined “museum” and, in the process, drawn some 120,000 annual visitors. Blending 21st century art with 19th century industry, this enormous place of pure innovation just keeps going, and growing.

“Mass MoCA is endowed with a profound sense of place,” said Joseph Thompson who has run the museum since it opened. “The buildings are beautiful, but there’s a larger story here. It’s an American story, about the country moving from heavy industry to lighter industry and finally to information.”

The story of MassMoCA begins in the Age of Steam. During the Civil War, a small printworks opened along the Hoosac River that bisects the steeple-spiked town of North Adams. As American industry grew, so did the Arnold Print Works, eventually occupying two dozen buildings and employing a third of the town.

During World War II, the enormous complex was taken over by Sprague Electric. The trigger for the atomic bomb was made here, along with parts for early space missions. Thousands of families depended on Sprague for picnics, paychecks, friendships. Then in 1985, the plant closed. While the rest of America danced through the 80s, North Adams wilted. Enter modern art.

Just up the road, Williams College art professor Thomas Krens was back from Germany where he visited factories converted to museums. Hearing about the Sprague plant, Krens donned a hardhat and walked through labyrinths of walkways and stairways, basements and backrooms. Where others saw rubble and ruin, Krens saw the future.

“No one could have planned this place,” he said. “No one has that perverse an imagination.”

The professor soon approached the mayor. “I thought Krens was crazy,” North Adams mayor John Barrett said. “I’m a blue collar mayor of a small town. I wouldn’t walk across the street to see modern art.”

But “crazy” soon became a motif at Mass MoCA. Even after Krens left to become director of the Guggenheim in New York, he kept dreaming. Another dreamer was Massachusetts (Republican) governor William Weld. When Weld toured the factory, he admired its promise. He soon offered more state funding — IF locals could raise their own millions. Through six more years and $8 million pledged by businesses, 100,000 square feet of industrial space grew from rubble to reality.

On opening day in 1999, aging former employees and young tattooed hipsters got their first look. Art fans admired exhibits by “Talking Heads” founder David Byrne and modern art legend Robert Rauschenberg. But locals saw their old industrial home given new life.

New walls were white, but old brick was scraped and sealed as if in a time capsule. Peeling paint, heating vents, and plumbing remained in all their glory. And while many museums seemed cloistered, Mass MoCA overflowed with natural light. With concrete floors abutting polished hardwood, rustic courtyards and abstract art at every turn, Mass MoCA was a hybrid of past and future. As if an Andy Warhol were given an ornate frame that once held a Winslow Homer.

Touring the museum, locals were amazed. “This used to be all machinery in here,” one woman told her daughter. “It was all dingy and smelly.” Then gazing across the enormous gallery, created when walls and floors were torn out, she said, “Oh, my goodness. It’s just fabulous.”

While the architecture is fabulous, and the revenue streams some $16 million a year into North Adams, some exhibits beg a question. It’s odd, but is it art? Plastic action figures lined up on glass? Crumpled car fenders? But every visit reveals something new and amazing.

Longtime visitors are still talking about the 12-ton metal phoenix that filled Building 6, a gallery as large as a football field. Ongoing exhibits include a virtual reality room by performance artist Laurie Anderson that lets you soar through imagined space and a James Turrell light show that bathes you in pastel colors. Upstairs are whole walls of geometric art by Sol LeWitt. Ever conscious of the future, Mass MoCA has slated the LeWitt exhibit to run until 2033.

And who knows what 2033 will bring? More space, more art, concerts, magic? When the future is framed by the past, only the sky, as in James Turrell’s new Skyspace at Mass MoCA, is the limit.

The Attic - American culture, history, faces, places. True stories for a kinder, cooler America.