MassMOCA: A Weekend In North Adams, Massachusetts - My Family Travels

This contemporary art museum in the rehabilitated mill town of North Adams proves that contemporary art can have family appeal, and can attract some quality lodging for visitors.

Are you interested in how America’s Yankee roots have been incorporated into design’s cutting edge? Western Massachusetts has just what you’re looking for. Within a half-hour of where the states of New York, Vermont and Massachusetts meet is the town of North Adams. This old Yankee community is undergoing an extraordinary revitalization due, in large part, to the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art known as MASS MoCA, (413/662-2111) the largest center for contemporary art in the United States.

The museum is housed on 13 acres of land in a series of cleverly renovated 19th-century mill buildings. Formerly the Sprague Electric Company, these mill buildings became part of a factory involved in the research and manufacture of electronic components for the U.S. government and industry from 1942-1985. In 1966, Sprague employed 4,137 from the town’s community of 18,000 residents. North Adams experienced a severe economic downturn when the company ceased operations due to competition from abroad and vacated the site, leaving those 4,187 workers unemployed.

After many years of planning, fundraising and construction, the museum opened its doors in May of 1999. At the forefront of design in its presentations and its interior spaces, the museum has become the centerpiece of North Adam’s recovery. With annual attendance around 100,000, MASS MoCA features 19 galleries (one as long as a football field), a 650-seat theater, an outdoor cinema, two performance courtyards, workshop, rehearsal facilities, office and commercial retail space. The facility enabled an unusual visual and performing arts program to be born and engendered other projects in the town, contributing to an expansion of the population for the first time in 15 years, and a 12% decrease in unemployment by the year 2000.

Engaging at Every Age

Go to MASS MoCA even if you don’t think you like contemporary art. The experience of seeing the renaissance of this industrial complex into a cultural institution is amazing in and of itself, and, in these immense spaces, you’re sure to find something that intrigues you, tickles you, or enrages you. Whatever you feel, you’re sure to react strongly and it will be an event you will remember, and, hopefully, want to repeat.

Don’t be afraid to bring kids of any age. Our tour-guide even explained that kids often respond even more positively than their parents who feel they have to “understand” the works, whereas children just react to them and the striking environment. “We showcase art that charts new territory, featuring installations and performances that are immersive in feeling and truly vast in scale. More than a museum, MASS MoCA is a theme park for thinking adults and children.”

The museum has no collection of its own, and mounts completely different exhibitions on an on-going basis. The Kidspace gallery is an interactive art creation and exhibition space specifically for children. Past Kidspace exhibits include works by children’s book author, Eric Carle, a series of interactive “touchable” pieces by local artists, and an installation of four video works in which the images, colors, patterns and shapes are altered by visitor’s movements. Additionally, special children’s events like dance, music, and storytelling are offered.

There is also an extensive performing arts program, ranging from music and dance performances, movie screenings, dance events and sing-alongs. Stop at “Lickety Split” off the main lobby for tasty soups, sandwiches, salads and treats or “Eleven” for a sit-down lunch or dinner. And, don’t leave without a visit to the bathrooms which pay tribute to the facility’s industrial roots!

Distinctive Family Lodging

In keeping with the spirit of the factory’s transformation, and in response to the need for additional lodging in North Adams, six row houses dating from the 1890s, have been renovated and redesigned into 50 unique guestrooms and suites. The former homes of mill workers and their families are now known as The Porches Inn (413/664-0400). This distinctive property, painted in vibrant colors and connected by two lengthy porches lined with rockers, combines a working class aesthetic with the cutting edge MASS MoCA style. Their beadboard walls, painted pale blueberry and sage green, blend with the wooden painted floors in complementary shades, and are highlighted by patterned, wool area rugs. The beds, covered with down quilts and luxurious linens, are extremely comfortable, and the furniture is a combination of vintage Arts and Crafts pieces, painted chests, lamps from the 1940’s and 50’s and plush, contemporary chairs and couches. Rooms boast cordless phones, DVD players (with DVD rental available at the front desk) and high speed Internet connections! The large bathrooms feature either clawfoot bathtubs or Jacuzzi-style tubs, with separate showers, and the mirrors are framed with the building’s original window frames. Continental room-service breakfast (served in an updated metal lunchpail) is complimentary, as is the cold buffet in the breakfast room off the lobby.

After walking around the huge spaces of MASS MoCA, you can simply cross the street to Porches and soak in the heated outdoor pool (open year-round), or relax in the enclosed sauna. The “Ping Pong Building” is a game room, complete with a 50″ wall-mounted plasma High Definition television with computerized sound system, perfect for a DVD screening or a game on Porch’s Sony PlayStation. Off of the Reception area, there are two “parlors” for reading, chatting and relaxing in front of a fire. Check their website for seasonal packages.

Area Attractions

Other nearby attractions include picturesque Williamstown, typical of New England. With its attractive town green, it is home to the Williams College Museum of Art (413/597-2429), one of the most impressive college collections in the US; the Williamstown Theatre Festival (413/597-3400), world-famous for summer theatre productions; and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (413/458-2303) whose Impressionist collection includes 36 works by Renoir as well as works by Degas and Monet. For some outdoors, cut loose time, in the nearby town of Adams, you can visit Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, perfect for hiking or skiing.

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