Art for Art’s Sake In North Adams

by Helen Anne Travis  |  Published January 6, 2016

A former mill town’s dilapidated factories have found a new purpose after being transformed into galleries and museums.

Mass MoCA (Photo: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

Mass MoCA (Photo: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

When you think about art in America, which cities come to mind? Maybe it’s New York, home to more galleries and museums than one can count. Then there’s Miami, with its international festivals and budding Design District.

Sure, these cities pull serious clout in the art world. But just a few hours’ drive from the galleries of Gotham is an enclave where art and culture mix with outdoor adventure.

It’s called North Adams, a 13,000-strong Massachusetts town tucked in the Berkshire Mountains just south of the Vermont state line.

In the 19th century North Adams was a hub for manufacturing; the city’s streets grew thick with cabinet builders and hat makers, bricklayers and iron forgers. Today, the buildings that housed the city’s factories cater to a different kind of craftsman. Artists and curators have taken up shop in the city’s former mills and manufacturing plants, turning the spaces into studios, galleries and artist lofts.

I asked Jodi Joseph, director of communications at North Adams’ Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, what made her town such a beacon for the artistically inclined.

“North Adams has always been cool,” she said. “Just now more people are finding out about it.”

Welcome to North Adams (Photo: Finnsland via Flickr)

Welcome to North Adams (Photo: Finnsland via Flickr)

Downtown, High Art

Joseph’s employer, downtown’s Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, also known as Mass MoCA, is the big draw of North Adams’ art scene. I can see the appeal. The former textile-mill-turned-electronics-manufacturer is now a sprawling 28-building campus home to one of the largest contemporary art collections in the country.

There are no permanent installations at Mass MoCA, which Joseph said means there’s always something new to see.

Unfortunately I missed the Chinese artist Xu Bing’s Phoenix exhibit. Joseph tells me the display featured two massive birds created from materials found in construction sites throughout China. They were hung from the rafters of Mass MoCA’s largest exhibitor hall.

But I was able to catch the renowned Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective. Wandering along the three flights of floor-to-ceiling art, I marveled at the artist’s dedication. These geometric shapes represent almost 40 years of LeWitt’s work.

As I try to wrap my head around the hypnotic patterns, Joseph tells me art isn’t the only star of the show at MassMoCA. The museum regularly hosts concerts, including Wilco’s Solid Sound, dance festivals and film screenings.

View over North Adams (Photo: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

View over North Adams (Photo: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

Old Buildings, New Life

Just a stone’s throw from downtown, I explore another former textile mill turned exhibition space. But this one doesn’t just shelter art; it’s also a home for the city’s creators.

More than 30 professional photographers, painters and crafters live and work at North Adams’ Eclipse Mill Artist Lofts. Many of their galleries and stores are open throughout the week, or by appointment.

I slip into the side door to see what’s open and admire the work that lines the residence’s halls. As the wood floors creak under me, I make a mental note to time my next visit with the Eclipse Mill’s North Adams Open Studios. This is when residents open their doors to share their artwork – and their homes – with the public.

The few galleries open on my visit give a taste of the Eclipse Mill Artist Lofts’ ten-foot-high windows, exposed ductwork, and brick walls. It’s easy to see why so many find these buildings so inspiring.

On The Fringe

A mile walk along the Hoosic River brings me to another inspiring site, this one created by Mother Nature.

For 550 million years she’s worked her magic on the grounds at Natural Bridge State Park, carving the white marble arch that gives the spot its name. A walking trail leads me and a handful of visitors along a 60-foot gorge that gives an awesome view into North Adams’ bedrock.

After a few strangers hand me their cameras to take shots of them posing along the quarry, I slip back to the parking lot and drive west. There are no other cars at the nondescript lot at the end of Marion Avenue, just west of downtown.

I follow the sound of water through the forest. After a 30-minute stroll, and a few leaps over the brook that winds through the trees, I’m at the foot of the Cascade Waterfall, one of the best falls in the Berkshires.

Forty feet above me the wall-of-water plunges from the hillsides surrounding the glen. I’d heard this was a popular swimming hole for locals, but on this chilly day it’s just me and the birds chirping in the branches above.

The setting sun indicates it’s time to go. I head back to my hotel. What were once the homes of laborers in North Adams’ mills has been turned into a block-long hotel just minutes from the town’s top sites. The dilapidated homes serve as a temporary refuge for travelers like myself who are weary from a day of exploring.