At Mass MoCA, Supporting Artists Beyond Exhibitions

Laura van Straaten, The New York Times, October 21, 2021

With workshops, residencies and more — generally invisible to the public — the museum is investing in the future of regional artists.


NORTH ADAMS, MASS. — On a sunny Saturday in September, a banquet hall at an outpost of the American Legion in this small industrial New England town is not where you would expect to find nearly 100 contemporary artists.


But there they were, buzzing about in Birkenstocks and T-shirts with arty slogans as they bartered with one another for art supplies like paintbrushes, pastels and inks, as well as fabric remnants and snarls of yarn.


Perhaps even more unexpected is that this scrappy inaugural “Swap-o-Rama” was organized under the auspices of one of the pre-eminent museums in the United States: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.


Since it opened in 1999 in a cluster of converted 19th-century factory buildings, Mass MoCA has been doing things its own, typically big way — and attracting art tourists because of it.



But the swap is just one example of how Mass MoCA has been quietly evolving its relationship with art communities across an increasingly broad swath of New England.


The breadth of the museum’s efforts are substantial. A program that teaches artists around New England to manage their financial affairs and grow their careers has tripled in size during the pandemic to nearly 900 participants. The museum’s residency program hosts up to a dozen artists who live and work in art studios and shared apartments for up to two months on the museum campus, just steps from the main public galleries. It created and is leading a coalition to provide resources for regional artists. And this year the museum is making more space for commerce, including placing a quirky vending machine selling local art in its front courtyard.



These initiatives are related to the museum’s commitment to support the region’s art scene, a mission that has grown in importance since the start of the pandemic.


Most of that has been, until now, largely invisible to the throngs that travel here to see exhibits by global art stars like James TurrellGlenn KainoTaryn SimonSol LeWitt or any of the museum’s many other current offerings across its 13-acre campus.



For Kristy Edmunds, the museum’s new director, Mass MoCA has smartly invested in more than “just what you can facilitate to a public.”


“Mass MoCA is unique,” Ms. Edmunds said, as “a non-collecting kunsthalle culture to designate space, not just for more exhibitions” but for what will benefit what she calls an “ecology” of artists.



No matter “what urban or rural community you are in, you will find the artists are the ones who are most willing to put their shoulder to the wheel to help sustain and support one another,” Ms. Edmunds added, “but what you find at Mass MoCA is that lives inside of the institution’s DNA as well.”


An integral part of that DNA is her colleague Blair Benjamin. Mr. Benjamin learned of Mass MoCA’s ambitious plans to revitalize North Adams while attending nearby Williams College, which has close ties to the museum.



He joined the museum in 2000 and, drawing on his background as a community organizer, in 2008 started Assets for Artists, which originally focused on financial education, but has since broadened its purview.


Originally, financial planners and accountants led most workshops. But in 2015, after Kim Faler, a local artist, learned to make a business plan for her studio practice, she helped convince Mr. Benjamin that Assets for Artists could be more impactful, both economically and educationally, by hiring artists — including Ms. Faler herself — to teach artists from an artist’s perspective about credit, debt, taxes and when it’s time to get or quit a day job.


Since then, the range of workshops and coaching has broadened. Next month, for example, a workshop that takes on “the myth of the starving artist,” is led by the artist Szu-Chieh Yun, who said the subject of money once filled her with “stress, anxiety, and dread.” In “Staying Authentic While Marketing Your Work,” the multimedia artist and designer Daniel Callahan teaches artists to market their work “in ways that don’t feel cheesy,” Mr. Benjamin said. 


Since April 2020, workshops have moved to Zoom. Courses remain free to artists who are from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island (or who have participated in the museum’s residency program).


Cliff Desravines, a Boston-based multi-hyphenate artist who goes by the moniker Cliff Notez said he was homeless before attending college and earning his master’s degree in fine arts. He left the only salaried job he had ever had to devote himself to his artwork, and then found himself couch-surfing among family and friends. “It was triggering,” he said.


Since then, “I’ve taken every single workshop Mass MoCA offers,” he said, adding that they helped him get on top of years of unpaid taxes and that Mr. Benjamin “has grown to be a business mentor.”


But at a town hall Mass MoCA hosted in 2019 that was attended by more than 100 artists and art-stakeholders in the region, it became clear there was a need for more systemic economic support. From that event, the museum helped birth the North Adams Artist Impact Coalition, a mix of art, nonprofit and governmental stakeholders, to be the central resource for artists working in the region. The coalition has since delivered economic grants in the first months of the pandemic and produced community events like the Swap-o-Rama. Mass MoCA, through Assets for Artists, is the “backbone partner responsible for staff support, fund-raising, and fiscal management,” Mr. Benjamin said.



Assets for Artists also supported the installation last spring of a vending machine selling art by local artists, the brainchild of the North Adams artist Nico Dery. On a recent weekday, tourists from New York and Florida perused the five rows of small, handcrafted objects and books from nearly 25 North Adams creators; another visitor popped $15 cash into the machine, pulled the lever and came away with a small book by Molly Rideout, whose day job is working for Assets for Artists.


Assets for Artists is having an impact on what’s inside the museum as well.


Ms. Faler, for example, isn’t just leading financial workshops; in 2020, Mass MoCA commissioned her to create a site-specific installation for “Kissing Through a Curtain,” a group show of 10 artists about what gets lost and gained in the act of translation — between cultures, languages, people and media. (The exhibition, on view through January, was planned for mid-March 2020, just as Covid. By the time the museum reopened, the title had garnered associations that had not been anticipated.)


In a 2,500-square-foot space within the show, Ms. Faler’s “Double Bubble,” comprising 20 large-scale “portraits” of wads of chewing gum cast in an array of materials, hangs at eye level from the two-story ceiling. The colorful, cloudlike forms emit the sounds of people chewing gum and blowing bubbles — each sound resonating differently as it travels though metal, wax, gypsum, glass and so on. It feels like walking through a microclimate of collective fret.


The group show also includes a complex multimedia installation by Detroit-based Osman Khan, a 2020 Guggenheim fellow. Downstairs, near the museum’s main entrance, a 60-foot long multimedia work on paper by the Puerto Rican artist Gamaliel Rodriguez, is on view as a solo exhibition through January 2023. Mr. Khan and Mr. Rodriguez both took part in the Mass MoCA residency program (yet another part of Assets for Artists) on the museum’s campus — which is how Susan Cross, the senior curator, and her team discovered their work.



All of this synergy is part of the museum’s appeal for Ms. Edmunds, who is thinking hard about connections between the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic. She is challenging herself and other cultural leaders to consider: “Do we snap back to the grid of what we did in the past, which we also knew wasn’t perfectly serving all of the needs of our creative economies and ecologies, or do we try and transform?”


Now she believes recovery and transformation — both of and through the arts — must go hand in hand.


“And Mass MoCA,” she said, “is really well positioned to be able to do that.”