05 November 2014

Berkshires Getaway

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Photo by Michele.

Last month, I escaped New York for a few days to meet up with some friends in the Berkshires. Having lived in New England for many years, going back to Massachusetts always feels like going home. And what better time to visit than the fall?

In addition to hanging out and catching up, we wanted to see some art. Which is why we chose to stay in North Adams. It may be the smallest city in Massachusetts (population 13,708) but it has one huge collection of art. This former mill town, once known as a producer of textiles in the 19th century and electrical components in the 20th, is now a destination for contemporary art fans thanks to the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in the old Arnold Print Works complex.

The Porches Inn, its view obscured by the seemingly endless amount of overhead wires in North Adams.
A partial view of our suite and Sabine, the Porches cat. Photos by Michele.

We stayed at The Porches Inn, located directly across the street from the MASS MoCA campus. A series of row houses originally used to house factory workers, they’ve been converted into a lovely hotel; each building features a porch with rocking chairs (hence the name) and charming rooms. To be honest, I could have just stayed at the hotel all day and been happy. Breakfast every morning consisted of local treats including Berkshire blend coffee and delicious sourdough bread, and in the evenings guests were welcome to enjoy a drink by the fire, which was much appreciated after being out in the cold. And if you were lucky, the Porches’ resident cat, Sabine, would make an appearance.

The Jewett House (i.e. perfect haunted house) built in 1872. Photo by Michele.

The North Adams Public Library. Photo by Michele.

 A ghost sign on a building in downtown North Adams for Enna Jettick shoes for women. Sizes 1-12, $5-$6. Photo by Michele.

"Bus Stand" by Victoria Palermo (2012). Photo by Michele

Even the signage on the local buildings has a certain artistic flair. Photos by Michele.

North Adams has a small downtown area with some lovely Victorian buildings like the Jewett House built in 1872 (wouldn’t it make the best ghost house?) and the Blackinton Mansion built in 1867 and now home to the North Adams Public Library. These 19th-century designs are juxtaposed with modern art installations, some of which serve a practical purpose. For example, “Bus Stand” by Victoria Palermo is both a piece of public art and an actual bus stand. I would also argue that some of the signage found around town constitutes an art form all its own.

The Mohawk Theatre, which first opened in 1938. Photos by Michele.

One of the most striking buildings in downtown North Adams is the old Mohawk Theater, which first opened its doors on November 5, 1938 (the feature film that day was That Certain Age with Deanna Durbin). A 1,200-seat movie theatre,it was an art deco jewel of its time. After it closed in 1991, the theatre fell into disrepair but locals fought plans to tear the Mohawk down and money was raised to restore the theater’s marquee. There is a campaign currently underway for restoration of the rest of the theatre.

Some of the different sites on the MASS MoCA campus. Photos by Michele.

Yet without a doubt the biggest draw in North Adams is Mass MoCA. With 110,000 square feet of exhibition space and 13-acres of property, it’s one of the largest contemporary art museums in the country with a campus as interesting as the art itself. The old brick factory buildings, bridges, and the Hoosic River cutting through the campus serve as a reminder that this was once a place of industry, starting before the Revolutionary War. What's so striking is how the surrounding modern art installations manage to blend right in with its 19th-century industrial setting.

 Examples from the Sol Le Witt "A Wall Drawing Retrospective" including signs telling visitors not to touch the walls. Photos by Michele.

 A detail from "Dance Dance Dance" by Dike Blair (2011). Photo by Michele.

 "Filthy Lucre" by Darren Waterston (2013-14). Photos by Michele.

We spent a whole day at MASS MoCA, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t see everything. What we did manage to catch was Sol LeWitt’s "A Wall Drawing Retrospective," 105 of LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings, which will be on display at MASS MoCA for 25 years; "The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor," which showcases the work of six artists who create art with analog film; Mark Dion’s "The Octagon Room," an actual room filled with his personal belongings; “In Transit: Between Image and Object,” shipping crates that are turned into works of art by three artists; and “Filthy Lucre,” Darren Waterston’s stunning and somewhat unsettling re-imagination of James McNeill Whistler’s famed “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.” 

Clockwise from left, "Lunar (Theatre)" (2014); "Black Sun" (2014); and "Scroll 1" from the "Golden series" (2013-14), which measures 108 inches wide and only 12 inches high. All by Teresita Fernández. Photos by Michele.

One of my favourite exhibits was “As Above So Below,” a wonderful collection of works by Teresita Fernández who turns common materials into something beautiful like the “Black Sun” (2014), which utilizes a collection of polycarbonate tubes to create a cloud of colour. And then there was “Lunar” (2014). For this piece, Fernandez covered a platform with 1,500 pounds of small glass beads that gave the appearance of snow.

 Scenes from Lee Boroson's "Moisture Content" (2014). Photos by Michele.

And my vote for most fun exhibit was Lee Boroson’s “Moisture Content” (2014). Don’t be discouraged by the title. Row upon row of hanging plastic orbs lead to a large round curtain that upon entering reveals to have more layers of material and flowers; it reminded me of a wedding dress. And judging by the antics of my fellow visitors, it has to be one of the museum’s top spots for taking selfies. 

MASS MoCA is a wonderful museum that one could probably spend a couple days at to see everything. It’s also hard on the feet, which is why it was nice to enjoy a great meal at the Gramercy Bistro on the campus that evening (and speaking of restaurants, need to mention another North Adams spot, PUBLIC eat+drink, who had amazing bourbon bramble cocktails).

The Williams College campus. Photo by Michele.

Our Berkshires trip wasn't confined to just North Adams. One afternoon we drove over to Williamstown to walk around the picture perfect Williams College campus and grab some coffee. And our last day was my favourite, a trip to Lenox to visit The Mount, Edith Wharton's home. More about that in my next post.

To find out more about MASS MoCA, visit their site here.

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