October 01, 2022

Mass appeal Bangor looks to Bay State town as a model for building a cultural economy

To get to North Adams, Mass., you take a mountain road through a forest, past clearings with coin-operated binoculars and signs that boast “Breathtaking Three-State View!” It’s called the Mohawk Trail, a leisurely drive dotted with roadhouses and motor inns, souvenir shops and family-style restaurants.

When you hit North Adams, the road bends in a hairpin turn, then dips sharply. Like a chute, it spits you out into a corridor of old brick factories with broken windows.

The typical New England sights – bed and breakfasts, maple syrup shacks, village greens – give way to vacant mill buildings, houses that need paint jobs, and a downtown where upscale cafes, galleries and emporiums coexist with a junk shop, a handful of empty storefronts and an out-of-business Kmart. On your way out of town, the road winds past a sprawling industrial complex that looks a bit spiffier than the others.

On the roof, illuminated steel letters that spell out “MASS MoCA” stick out against a dark hill like the Hollywood sign. If you’re a tourist, the letters let you know you’ve arrived at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. If you’re a North Adams resident, the letters stand for much more.

Years ago, letters spelling “Sprague Electric” stood on the same roof, and with them the promise of 4,000 factory jobs and a bustling local economy. North Adams was a “company town,” and when the company closed in 1985, the town all but dried up. About a quarter of the 16,000 residents lost their jobs, and in the years that followed, 70 percent of the downtown storefronts were boarded up.

Now, 70 percent of the storefronts are full. In each of the two years after the museum’s opening in 1999, $29 million in new business was pumped into the city. It was an unlikely project in an unlikely place, but when MASS MoCA came to town, it sparked a transformation that has led city officials from Bangor to the Bronx to view North Adams as a model.

Tonight, Bangor will take an even closer look when the business and economic development department screens “Downside UP,” a documentary film about MASS MoCA and its effect on North Adams. Bangor officials hope to capitalize on the success of the National Folk Festival and the November arrival of the University of Maine Museum of Art.

Stimulating the economy through the arts is not new in Bangor. Institutions such as the Penobscot Theatre Company, the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, the Maine Discovery Museum, the Bangor Public Library and the Bangor Museum and Center for History serve as cultural anchors that bring people downtown. In turn, these people spend money at nearby restaurants, shops and galleries. The foundation is there, officials say, but there is still room for growth.

“We’ve got a bunch of empty buildings downtown,” City Councilor John Rohman said. “I would like to think we’re not going to stop with the University of Maine Museum of Art.”

The transformation in North Adams started with a bunch of empty buildings – 27, to be exact, spread out over 13 acres. But it took nearly 15 years, and many stops and starts, to see MASS MoCA come to fruition.

“No one can deny North Adams has come around in a pretty big way,” said “Downside UP” director Nancy Kelly, who will be on hand tonight to discuss the film and its implications for the cultural economy.

“It’s so remarkable to make a documentary about something that turns around,” said Kelly, a North Adams native who now lives in Greenbrae, Calif. “I didn’t know that was going to happen.”

No one did.

The title “Downside UP” refers to Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Tree Logic,” one of the most popular installations at MASS MoCA. It features a row of trees, in containers suspended from steel cables, growing upside down. But the title also references the way the museum has turned around the luck of the town – and Kelly’s own expectations. After inheriting the “downbeat philosophy” of her hometown, Kelly hardly expected to find a success story in North Adams.

“That downtown, I mean, when my parents were young adults and I was a child, was so busy,” Kelly said. “In the ’80s and ’90s, when 70 to 80 percent of the town was boarded up, it was a place that people who lived there did not want to admit they were from.”

North Adams didn’t have a folk festival, an art museum or a Shakespeare festival. What it had was a 28 percent unemployment rate when the rest of Massachusetts was enjoying 2 percent unemployment.

Enter MASS MoCA, the largest contemporary art museum in the country. It started in 1986, when Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art in picturesque Williamstown, was looking for a space large enough to exhibit contemporary work. At the same time, Gov. Michael Dukakis was looking for a bone to throw the city, so he pledged $35 million for the project.

When Gov. William Weld took office, he had other ideas. Rather than hand over the money, he made the city work for it, through matching grants and extensive planning. Krens had left the project to become director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and his successor, Joseph Thompson, returned from his honeymoon to find out that state funding had been pulled.

Thompson, a Williams College alumnus who had been on the project since the beginning, was left with the task of raising $9.4 million in private funds. He did it quickly, but it took a while to convince Weld.

“Why did Joe keep doing it?” asked Katherine Myers, MASS MoCA’s marketing director. “Once you start taking people’s money, even if it’s $10, you can’t just say, ‘Sorry, it didn’t work, I’m out of here.’ You have an obligation to do something for them.”

Thompson’s persistence paid off. Since opening, the museum has drawn more than 100,000 visitors a year, some local, many from away. And all of the donors – including the people who gave $10 – are listed on a plaque in the museum’s lobby. After all, these are the people who stuck with MASS MoCA even when the rest of the state had given up.

“Not working here, I thought it was a boondoggle,” said Myers, a Williams College alumna who returned to the area about 10 years ago.

And now?

“When I first moved back I was a little embarrassed,” Myers said. “I didn’t make enough money to live in Williamstown, and I wasn’t proud to be living in North Adams. Now I’m embarrassed to say I’m living in Williamstown.”

Talk about a turnaround.

North Adams is still a work in progress, however. There are still vacant buildings and run-down tenements. Kids still hang around downtown complaining that there’s nothing to do. Several of the Internet companies that moved into North Adams were hit by the dot-com bust of 2001. Not all merchants have experienced an increase in business. Howard D’Amico, who owns Claire’s Photo Supply & Bargain Outlet, said the people who come to MASS MoCA don’t stop in his shop.

“MASS MoCA is not a cure-all,” Myers said. “MASS MoCA is a catalyst.”

It inspired Nancy Fitzpatrick, president of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, to open The Porches Inn, a tony bed and breakfast across the street from Building 5 of the museum. Rather than start from scratch, she and an investor bought a group of dilapidated row houses where Sprague employees used to live, renovated them, and decorated them with a blend of retro and modern accouterments. Each room has a flat-screen TV, DSL Internet connection and DVD player, but the tubs have claw feet, there are plates hung on the walls, granny-style, and breakfast is delivered to your room in a galvanized steel lunch pail, as a nod to the property’s industrial roots.

The inn, which costs between $160 and $425 a night in the peak season, has no view to speak of. It overlooks the back of the museum, a self-serve car wash, and a busy street. But location was what Fitzpatrick had in mind. North Adams has one other bed and breakfast and a Holiday Inn, but if all these hip, artsy types were going to visit the museum, surely they’d want to stay in a hip, artsy place nearby, right?

Since the inn’s opening last July, that reasoning has paid off. Business has been heavy, according to manager Olivier Glattfelder.

Fitzpatrick isn’t the only one to capitalize on the city’s revitalization, however. The downtown area is home to three busy coffeehouses, an ultramodern restaurant at the museum, a world-renowned digital animation firm, a purveyor of fine imported goods, and a business devoted solely to tooth whitening. And many of the shops that existed before MASS MoCA’s arrival are reaping the benefits as well.

“It’s definitely affected everything,” said Karen Kane, owner of Papyri Books on Main Street. “When my business partner and I first opened here five years ago, I can say there were days when barely anyone would come in the store, except the street people. … MASS MoCA directly affects our business. People interested in the arts are also interested in books.”

Kane says the museum’s arrival hasn’t just helped her business, it’s changed the whole dynamic of North Adams.

“For me, MASS MoCA has brought into town a lot of the kinds of people who aren’t here now – artists, musicians, people with foreign accents who see it as sort of fertile ground for them. It’s unbroken.”

Sculptor Eric Rudd and painter Danny O both relocated to North Adams because they were able to find vast studio space for a fraction of the cost of big-city rents. Rudd, an artist-investor who came to the city in the early 1990s, recently bought one of the mills that flanks the Mohawk Trail on the way into North Adams. He plans to renovate the building into studio and housing space to lure even more artists away from the cities and into the Berkshire hills, a region known as a cultural-tourism mecca.

Location is part of the reason for North Adams’ success. It’s a little more than 150 miles away from Boston and New York City, and about an hour’s drive from Albany, N.Y. Within a half-hour’s drive, visitors can view a French Impressionist show at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, take in a dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow in Lee, or hear classical music at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox.

“We’re part of a larger cultural tourism package that is the Berkshires,” Myers said. “Basically, there was this constellation in Berkshire County, and there were all these stars in the constellation. North Adams didn’t have one. Now, there’s a reason to come to North Adams.”

Though many people make Bangor a destination, there’s usually a sports tournament or a shopping excursion involved. City officials want to give people more reasons to come to Bangor – to make it part of this region’s tourism package. The city is within an hour’s drive of Acadia National Park and about an hour and a half away from the gateway to Baxter State Park. And the city wants to take advantage of its proximity to New Brunswick and Quebec, as well.

“Let’s not think of us as being at the end of the line on the Eastern Seaboard,” Rohman said. “Let’s think of us as being a destination for our Canadian counterparts. There’s no reason, if we get enough critical cultural mass, that we couldn’t attract people from north of us.”

Could something like MASS MoCA happen in Bangor? Rohman thinks so. The city has vacant buildings, such as the Waterworks, and an administration that recognizes the value of the arts.

“This is not far-fetched,” Rohman said.

No one thought trees could grow upside down, after all.

“Downside UP” will be shown at 7 tonight at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St. Admission is free but seating is limited. To reserve a seat, call 945-4420 and ask for the office of business and community development. For more information, visit www.downsideupthemovie.org or www.massmoca.org.

North Adams native Howard D’Amico owns Claire’s Photo Supply and Bargain Outlet in town. D’Amico said MASS MoCA’s arrival hasn’t affected his business, as the museum has its own gift shop and restaurant. “I’m selling to an empty street,” he said.

Downtown North Adams is a work in progress, including several hip restaurants, coffeehouses and boutiques, along with a handful of empty storefronts. The historic Flatiron Building houses Eziba, a purveyor of imported goods from around the world, and the Flatiron Artists’ Apartments, which provide short- or long-term rentals for visiting artists.

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