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Director of Mass MoCA, Playground for Artists, Moves On

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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — On a recent overcast morning here in this former factory town, Joseph C. Thompson donned his cowboy hat, hopped on his bicycle and pedaled to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to give his final official tour of the institution he has run since he helped found it 33 years ago.

While there is always more work to be done, this seemed to the 62-year-old director like as good a moment as any for moving on. He recently completed an expansion that brought the complex to 650,000 square feet — roughly the total area of the Louvre. He saw the museum through a pandemic-forced closing and reopening. And in January, the museum will open James Turrell’s light-manipulating Skyspace in a former water tower, a project the artist envisioned when he and Mr. Thompson first walked the property in 1987.

ImageMr. Thompson first envisioned a Skyspace at Mass MoCA, one of James Turrell’s light-manipulating, perception-altering experiments, decades ago. Built in a former water tower, it will hold 70 viewers and open in January.
Credit…James Turrell, Structure and Rendering by Darryl Cowie

“No doubt I have a terminal case of founderitis,” he said, “and by rights probably should have left years ago.”

Walking through the museum with Joe, as most people call him, hearing him recount harrowing tales of birthing the museum, seeing how jazzed he still gets when a visitor’s eyes adjust to the mind-bending magenta of Mr. Turrell’s 2017 light installation “Guardian (Wedgework),” it is clear that Mass MoCA has not only been Mr. Thompson’s life’s work, but his life.

He helped transform this northern corner of the Berkshires — which had high rates of unemployment, teen pregnancy and high school dropouts — into a thriving art destination with hotels, restaurants and retail.

He raised a son here, now 22, and a daughter, 17. Perhaps most importantly, he made Mass MoCA a place of pilgrimage for artists, where they could create unusually longstanding exhibitions — Sol Lewitt’s wall paintings, Laurie Anderson’s virtual reality installations, Anselm Kiefer’s steel pavilion of 30 paintings and all those luminous Turrells.

The museum now consists of 28 buildings, attracts an average of 300,000 visitors a year and bills itself as the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.

Reaching this point hasn’t been easy. It took over a decade to get the museum open and to persuade the state — as well as individual donors — to support the undertaking.

Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“I could write a book on how not to build a museum,” Mr. Thompson said. “We started with no endowment, no cash reserves, no line of credit, so we were living on whatever it is we made that week and — given that museums lose money every week they’re open — that was just a very challenging environment.”

As a result, Mr. Thompson’s homespun, easygoing aura belies a dog-with-a-bone intransigence that convinced the former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to award the museum a grant of $35 million and prevailed on Gov. William F. Weld not to demand that money back.

Mr. Thompson’s evangelical salesmanship induced local shopkeepers to pony up their own small contributions. His entrepreneurship enabled Mass MoCA to generate revenue by developing commercial real estate in the area, like a local courthouse and the Porches Inn, a boutique hotel across the road.

And Mr. Thompson managed to persevere despite a relatively modest $12 million annual operating budget (recently reduced to $10.5 million because of the pandemic).

“Joe’s a tough guy,” said Thomas Krens, who first had the idea for the museum. “Without Joe, Mass MoCA never would have happened.”

Having realized while in Germany for the 1985 Cologne art fair that abandoned factories could be used to show art, Mr. Krens teamed up with Mr. Thompson — one of his former students — and Michael Govan, now director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to start Mass MoCA.

But Mr. Krens left in 1988 to become director of the Guggenheim, taking Mr. Govan with him. He offered to bring Mr. Thompson, too, but Mr. Thompson decided to stay put.

Born in Oklahoma, where he worked on an oil field after college, Mr. Thompson came to the director position with limited experience — a B.A. from Williams College, degrees in art and business from the University of Pennsylvania and a stint at the Williams College Museum of Art.

Credit…James Turrell; Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The idea of starting a contemporary art museum in a former textile mill and electronics plant in a depressed region of New England initially struck Governor Dukakis as harebrained. “Northern Berkshire was dying — in fact Berkshire County was dying,” Mr. Dukakis said. “The notion of doing this was really coming out of left field but there wasn’t anything else to do. We had to do something.”

Over the years, Mr. Thompson has encouraged artists to spread their wings and stay a while — considerably longer than the usual few months of most rotating exhibitions, including some for 25 years. (In most cases, the elaborate installations are funded through private donations.)

“It’s quite a place,” Mr. Turrell said. “Each artist is dealt with in depth.”

Mr. Turrell’s exhibition at Mass MoCA is his only comprehensive retrospective on public view, encompassing one of every major category of the artist’s work, and at least one piece from each of his seven decades of practice. The new Skyspace is his largest free-standing circular piece to date — 40 feet in diameter and 40 feet high — with a capacity for 70 viewers.

Situated in a repurposed concrete tank, which previously held standby water for the factory’s fire protection system, Skyspace includes a retractable roof cap as well as a programmable light system.

Ms. Anderson said she has found the museum freeing, a place where commerce feels far away and she can “just try stuff out.”

“It’s a much longer relationship with visitors,” she added. “It’s like having your own private museum.”

In preparing for his massive show at Mass MoCA last year, “Mind of the Mound,” Trenton Doyle Hancock said that he found the creative license hard to fathom, and that Denise Markonish, the senior curator and director of exhibitions, explained to him that the institution’s mission “was to make artists’ dreams come true.”

“I had been working on not just painting but animation, a short film, a comic book and all sorts of other side projects,” Mr. Hancock said. “They gave me an opportunity to put all of those things under one roof, to basically create a theme park based on my imagined world.”

Similarly, Nari Ward, whose 2011 show, “Sub Mirage Lignum,” featured large-scale sculptures covered in wooden strips, said, “They never got frightened as the work evolved.”

“Joe is like a frustrated installer,” Mr. Ward added of Mr. Thompson, who worked with the crew. “He came in with his tool belt. You don’t see a lot of directors taking that on.”

Credit…Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

To be sure, such hands-on involvement can lend itself to micromanaging, and Mr. Thompson acknowledged that he can drive his staff a little nuts with details like the size of a font or the patina of the floor. But curators say the director has given them the creative freedom that matters most. “Not many museums would create a working polar plunge in their galleries,” Ms. Markonish said, referring to Taryn Simon’s 2018 “Cold Hole” installation. “Most curators hop from one institution to the next. Here, we stay because he lets us see our vision through.”

Mr. Thompson early on recognized that the museum had to move into the performing arts — from David Byrne to the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival — because its distinct forms brought in different demographics.

“Whether it’s country or rap or indie or experimental jazz or new music — each of those have a passionate fan base,” Mr. Thompson said. “I’m convinced that many of our performing arts visitors don’t know what Mass MoCA stands for, but they get there to follow the music or the theater or the dance that they love and they visit the museum on that Saturday afternoon and they find out it’s not as bad as they think and come back.”

Rachel Chanoff, the curator of performing arts and film since the museum’s inception, described Mr. Thompson’s “reckless optimist” approach as, “‘Let’s make it the cultural living room of this community. Let’s have dance parties, let’s have picnics, let’s have cooking lessons.’”

Mass MoCA has, indeed, become an important anchor in the area, with close relationships to its fellow institutions, namely the Clark and the Williams College Museum of Art. “The Clark gave about $5 million dollars or more to Mass MoCA, which is very unusual in light of the more typical competition,” said Michael Conforti, the Clark’s former director, who is a trustee emeritus of Mass MoCA. “We need to help one another.”

Other institutions have modeled themselves after Mass MoCA, like Dia Beacon, which was opened by Mr. Govan; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas; and the Armory and the Shed in New York. “Mass MoCA has certainly been an influence for me in developing Watermill,” said the avant-garde artist Robert Wilson, referring to the arts complex he founded on Long Island in 1992.

What is next for Mr. Thompson? Mr. Krens suggested that he might have a role for him in the ambitious new cultural corridor he is creating in North Adams, which features a railroad and architecture museum.

Of course, Mr. Thompson could see this moment as an opportunity to relax, to fly his small airplane or ride his road bike. He is still facing the stress of a trial on charges stemming from a 2018 collision with a motorcyclist, to which he has pleaded not guilty and said is unrelated to his departure.

Tracy Moore, the deputy director, is serving as interim director and chief executive while the museum looks to replace Mr. Thompson, who will stay on through next summer as an adviser.

“My job is pretty clear for the next eight months or so — to wrap up Turrell and I’ll be out rattling my tin cup,” he said. “We’ve too often managed by triage or robbing Peter to pay Paul, and I’d really like to put in place some resources so that the next person has a little bit of gas money or ‘Oh my God’ money so they can fix issues or make things possible.

“I want to make it better for the next person.”

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