Tom Krens Outlines Plans for a Cultural Corridor

Former Governors Dukakis and Weld Share North Adams Podium

By: - Dec 05, 2015

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During a press conference this morning at Western Gateway Heritage State Park spearheaded by Williams College alumnus, former director of the Williams College Museum of Art and brains behind Mass MoCA, Tom Krens, appeared to be presiding over an alumni meeting.

Now 68, Krens was joined by the former Governors, Michael Dukakis (82), and William Weld (70), both of whom were key to providing seed money in state funding for the conversion of the former Sprague Electric campus into Mass MoCA.

Before that happened under Joe Thompson, his former student at Williams, Krens departed to become director of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (1988-2008).

While not active in Northern Berkshire County since leaving for a controversial tenure with the Guggenheim Krens has maintained a weekend and vacation home in Williamstown.

As he told the audience this morning for the past 30 years he has been saying that traditional models for museums are obsolete. Given their structures and resources there is no space to put objects if they continue to collect.

He pointed out the recent example of the Whitney Museum’s move to a new building near the High Line in the Meatmarket region of lower Manhattan. The abandoned property on Madison Avenue was “sold” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to show its expanded programming for modern and contemporary art.

This is not quite true as the Met has leased the property and has no idea what will happen when that arrangement and experiment expires. While this is a dramatic change Krens speculated that the pressing need for further such developments would turn the upper east side into a dense complex of museums.

His colorful remarks were peppered with similar examples of hyperbole and irony. Asked direct questions Krens can be feisty and evasive.

Using his example of museums with collections bursting at the seams he created a number of national and international expansion slots for the Guggenheim. Not all of these projects worked and eventually the board moved to focus more on New York.

Although Krens initiated numerous exhibitions with budgets in the range of $2 million , with sarcasm, he stated that he is remembered only for one. In that regard he described the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club which included celebrity members. The survivors- Lawrence Fishburn, Jeremy Irons and Lauren Hutton among others- recently joined Krens for a visit to North Adams and its long abandoned Mohawk Theatre.

He sees the development of the theatre as a part of the plan he presented to create a six-mile cultural corridor connecting Williamstown and North Adams. When all the parts fall into place Krens described a two week film festival in memory of his friend and fellow biker, Dennis Hopper, at the refreshed Mohawk.

Using slides, architectural renderings and text bullet points Krens presented a spelling binding overview of visionary plans. It is focused on a next phase in the cultural and economic development of Northern Berkshire County which was dead in the water when he first proposed Mass MoCA.

Drawn onto a satellite shot there was a line between Williamstown and North Adams. In terms of generating cultural tourism he commented on a lack of balance. There are several tourism destinations in Williamstown- The Clark Art Institute, The Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown Theatre Festival- with just Mass MoCA, now being expanded by a third, at the other.

Looking ahead he pointed to his proposed 160,000 square-foot, for profit, Global Contemporary Art Museum as the fulcrum in the center, and new destinations for North Adams. The others are a renovated Mohawk as well as a new museum of extreme model railroading and contemporary architecture, to be built as the centerpiece of a redevelopment of the Western Gateway Heritage State Park complex, immediately south of downtown; the EMRCA Museum is planned for 32,400 square feet.

Krens revealed that he and his son have set up a model railroad prototype in the 3,000 square feet basement of his Williamstown residence. Govenors Weld and Dukakis are enthusiasts of railroad history. Dukakis expressed regret that he was too late to enjoy a passenger train ride from Boston to North Adams through the infamous Hoosac Tunnel.

While MASS MoCA draws some 150,000 visitors the downtown remains moribund. Krens commented that it did not prove to the economic "silver bullet" he envisioned. 

Based on the world’s largest model railroad museum in Hamburg, Germany which attracts a million annual visitors, a similar plan for North Adams has the potential to be a bigger draw than MoCA. Numbers were bandied about postulating as many as 250,000 annual visitors. This compares to numbers for the Clark.

More significantly the audience for model railroads represents very different demographics than those for fine arts museums. The entire package represents more reasons to visits which translates into a boost for the hospitality industry.

Krens speculated that it would take a half a day adequately to visit the museum with some 100 model trains in an elaborate, state of the art setting, operated by a staff of 60 working with computers.

While an existing structure would be expanded this would be in addition to the currently underused buildings which were initiated under Governor Dukakis as Heritage State Park. It is also located next to active freight trains. There are plans to open a walking connection with the MoCA campus.

The most intriguing question is just what Krens means in describing Global Contemporary Art Musum as “for profit.” When I asked for clarification he provided a complex, somewhat defensive and less than definitive answer. We will report on that separately.

For now the good news is that it will likely be constructed in a factory-like, cost efficient manner over the next couple of years.

During his time at the podium the architect Richard Gluckman showed renderings for the structure which will include vast open spaces, an inverted, light weight, strong metal truss structure for the roof and climate controlled storage facilities.

Formerly Gluckman converted industrial spaces for Dia Foundation in New York and the Andy Warhol Foundation in Pittsburgh. Over the years of his practice the cost per square foot has risen from $19 per square foot to some $300. The plan is to make the new museum cheap and energy efficient. Krens proposes using only natural daylight with shorter hours in the winter. While initially more expensive Gluckman proposes solar panels for the museum’s total energy needs.

It is wonderful that Krens is bringing his visionary, entrepreneurial style to North Adams but this has happened through a bit of whimsy, luck and serendipity.

The for profit museum was originally intended for China. Krens alluded to complications that ended those plans. He also expressed relief from a grueling schedule of regular 24-hour flights and three day visits. Now he can develop museum concepts close to home. The inspiration for this lies in MoCA's bold long term arrangement with the Sol LeWitt estate and Yale University Art Museum as well as the Hall Art Museum’s building and loan of works by Anselm Kiefer.

There are many major collectors that currently warehouse their holdings. It is a consortium of these individuals who are the focus of investors and lenders to the for profit museum. It is unclear, or in a state of development, as to how there will be a financial return for these participants.

Krens pointed out that the works by James Turrell in development for Mass MoCA are installations he acquired for the Guggenheim in 1991 that have never been installed.

Particularly added to already formidable cultural resources these moves raise the bar ever higher. It eases the North Berkshires from a destination for a day trip and overnight stay to extended vacations with multiple activities.

After the conference Michael Conforti, the former director of the Clark, engaged me for follow up on my question to Krens about what he means by a for profit museum.

As Conforti put it “If it's not a non profit it’s not a museum.”

Perhaps. But the art world has spent a generation second guessing and trying to keep up with Krens.

Press Release

At a press conference organized this morning by the City of North Adams, Massachusetts, Mayor Richard Alcombright joined former Governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld, Thomas Krens (Director Emeritus of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and founding Chairman of MASS MoCA) and architect Richard Gluckman, principal of GluckmanTang Architects, to unveil the ambitious plans for a new group of developments that will confirm North Adams as a cultural destination.

Adding to the renowned facilities that already exist in the area—including MASS MoCA, the Clark Art Institute, the Williamstown Theater Festival and the Williams College Museum of Art—the new developments promise to establish an internationally recognized North Adams-Williamstown cultural corridor.

Mayor Alcombright revealed that Thomas Krens and Richard Gluckman have been developing plans for the new development since early 2015, working with the assistance of North Adams officials and former Governors Dukakis and Weld.

The principal components are:

  • the Global Contemporary Art Museum, a new private initiative, occupying 160,000 square feet of space on the grounds of Harriman-West Airport, about ten minutes west of downtown North Adams
  • a new museum of extreme model railroading and contemporary architecture, to be built as the centerpiece of a redevelopment of the Western Gateway Heritage State Park complex, immediately south of downtown; the EMRCA Museum is planned for 32,400 sf
  • and the revitalization of the historic Mohawk Theater on Main Street as a site for film screenings, performing arts and public programs.

“The creation of MASS MoCA, which Thomas Krens originated and Governors Dukakis and Weld championed, was a decisive turning point for our North Adams community and the Berkshires,” Mayor Alcombright said. “But we have more work to do. I am delighted that Tom and Governors Dukakis and Weld have agreed to work with us again as we move our city and our region forward. These prominent new destinations will powerfully enhance our region’s reputation as a widely recognized hub of cultural, educational and economic activity.”

“I am delighted to work with Bill Weld, Tom Krens and all my friends in North Adams to make this happen,” said Governor Dukakis. “North Adams played a prominent role in our national railroad history. Building a model train and contemporary architecture museum, of this quality and detail, in North Adams will celebrate this history and build upon the investments we made in the 1980s in culture and education.  And to build this at the Western Gateway Heritage Park is a perfect fit with the vision we articulated when we first proposed the heritage state park system. Redevelopment of the Heritage Park will further enhance North Adams as a cultural and tourist destination.”

After serving two terms as Governor, Michael Dukakis was Vice Chairman of Amtrak, the national rail network, from 1998-2003. 

Governor Weld, also a two term Governor of Massachusetts, is currently a member of Minz Levin, the Boston law firm, and a principal in ML Strategies, an international consulting company. Governor Weld said, “The scope and likely success of this project for North Adams is a perfect example of a community of interests coming together to undertake something ambitious and transformative, and having the collective capacity to see it through to completion. Both Michael and I have worked with Tom Krens on MASS MoCA. In retrospect, the size of the mountain we had to climb some 25 years ago was higher. The people, the expertise and the ideas for this next major step are already in place.  I’m looking forward to the ribbon cutting.”

During their terms in office, Governors Dukakis and Weld played critical roles in the redevelopment of North Adams as a cultural destination. During his first administration in the early 1980s, Governor Dukakis proposed and funded the creation of the statewide Heritage Park concept. In the late 1980s, his administration supported and provided the initial funding for MASS MoCA. Governor Weld subsequently worked with the state legislature and the private sector to create the blueprint and economic model that led to full public and private funding for MASS MoCA. A $25 million state grant for the continued expansion of MASS MoCA, announced in June 2014 by former Governor Deval Patrick and MASS MoCA Director Joseph Thompson, built directly on the foundation created by Governors Dukakis and Weld.

The concept for the new cultural development complements the 2030 Master Plan for North Adams, as laid out in the Economic Development Strategic Plan presented by the North Adams Partnership in 2014.

With regard to the two new museums being proposed, Thomas Krens said: “I have been in and around art museums for more than 30 years, and have thought deeply about the form. I have long said that art museums are an 18th century idea, in a 19th century box, that more or less fulfills its structural destiny sometime toward the end of the 20th century. In short, things change, institutions evolve, new forms emerge. Northwest Massachusetts is fortunate to be home to a cluster of elite museums. New models can complement what is already here, and respond to a social need by serving the art, the artists and, most importantly, the public. And that does not mean just the typical museum going, or art focused public. It means the public in the broadest sense.

“The Global Contemporary Art Museum concept is based on showing the best of international contemporary art. Most established museums in large size cities, and many private collectors, simply do not have the space to either systematically or sustainably exhibit the explosion of creativity that has taken place in the visual arts of recent time.  The work doesn’t get seen. The GCAM is designed to address that with what I feel is an alternative model of what a museum can be. In the process, it will also complement the heroic work that Joe Thompson has accomplished at MASS MoCA over the past 25 years, and find its niche among the great institutions already established in the purple valley.

“The Extreme Model Railroad and the Contemporary Architecture Museum is going to make vivid for a whole new audience one of the most important aspects of the history of American industry and transportation of the last 200 years, and the exhilarating potential of contemporary architecture. That these new institutions will take their place next to the MASS MoCA, the Clark and the Williams College Museum will enhance and dignify the entire experience of absorbing and consuming culture for the broadest possible audience in the very best senses of the words.

“In the context of the continuing cultural vitalization of North Adams, completing the Mohawk Theater almost goes without question. The restoration plans were completed and work was started more than 20 years ago. But it stopped in 1991 for want of a rationale. Its almost a miracle its all still there, dormant but intact. This plan, with the essential participation of MASS MoCA, can provide that programming rationale.

“Governors Dukakis and Weld have been crucial to this task. They embraced an improbable idea almost 30 years ago and made it a Massachusetts reality. Their vision, acumen and advice have been crucial to bringing the project this far, Their continued championship and hands on engagement are indispensable.

“I have worked with Richard Gluckman for 20 years. He designed and built Guggenheim Museum projects for me in Berlin and Abu Dhabi. We have recently collaborated on the new media museum for the Hunan Broadcasting System in Changsha, China. Richard’s artistry has given and understated vibrancy to these projects.

Krens Part Two.

Krens Part Three.