Art: Going For Mass Appeal

An abandoned factory becomes a harmonious home for a broad array of contemporary works

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Echoes of the site's former uses--it was built in the 19th century for a textile printer and then became the home of an electric firm--ring through the place in deeper chords than the sound installation that mimics the tones of the old clock tower. One 18-ft.-high-ceilinged room was used to generate lightning to test the capacitors the electric firm made. Now video artist Tony Oursler has annexed that space for a talking-light-bulb piece. "We have yet to have an artist who comes here who doesn't have a big idea," says Thompson. "These buildings have a heft that invites large gestures." It's not just new projects. Rauschenberg chose to display his biggest work in a gallery at Mass MoCA that is about the size of a football field. Even in art, size matters.

Thompson says he wants to "erase the traditional line between the visual and performing arts." To this end, Mass MoCA has a theater, rehearsal spaces, an outdoor cinema and what the center boasts is "two performance courtyards." These are ordinary courtyards, enlivened by the buildings, elevated walkways and bridges that surround them. There's something peculiarly exultant about watching a Los Lobos concert in an abandoned factory. That peculiarity is Mass MoCA's chief joy.

Whether the museum will flourish is more up in the air than Beuys' sculpture. Mass MoCA has to survive on a wee budget and attract more than seasonal tourists to the area. All this without a titanium-covered building or a huge permanent collection to marvel at. But the combination of this sprawling, roughhewn relic of an era of America's past bristling with the newest in every type of art form is something almost equally worth seeing.

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