Monday, January 12, 2015

North Adams artist Ralph Brill argues for a takeover of the Mohawk Theater by MassMoCA

Guest blog by Ralph Brill 

"Why North Adams needs to urge MassMoCA to take over The Mohawk now and thereby save the city. MassMoCA is located in North Adams, but unfortunatley is not a part of this city."

UPDATE: The Albany Times Union  has done a long piece which addresses this topic. Here's the link.

Mohawk Theater, North Adams
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- The Mohawk Theater on Main Street in North Adams, MA opened in November 1938 to great fanfare.  It was designed by Mowll and Rand Architects of Boston.  North Adams had two other theaters – the Richmond and the Paramount.  Thousands of locals were employed at the nearby Sprague Electric Plant (MASS MoCA).  Times were good and looking even better at that moment.

The Mohawk was a 1,200 seat flagship Loew Theater that offered 20-cent movies to full houses.  It was one of the few late Art Deco style theaters still standing in the country in 1991 when it shut its projector and closed its doors.  At that point in time, there was much sadness, as many of the Residents remembered their good times watching movies in The Mohawk.   

The closing of The Mohawk was just another symbol of the pain being suffered as a result of the closing of the Sprague Electric plant and the loss of 3,000 jobs, 4,000 people moved away and the unemployment rate climbed to 14% (twice the 2014 rate) in 1985.   So, in my mind there is an historical connection between MASS MoCA and The Mohawk.   

Former Mayor John Barrett III saw The Mohawk as an important symbol of the Life On Main Street and the hstory Of North Adams.  He convinced the WalMart Corp. to help buy The Mohawk for the city and he was successful in securing around $75,000 in 1999 to restore the theater’s Marquee to its earlier glory.  Engineering studies revealed that the theater building was structurally sound, but that most everything else was in need of replacement.  The City was successful in attracting public funds to restore the Main Street façade and gut the theater’s interior as part of Phase I of a several phase restoration project.  

Since that time, nothing too much has happened:  The Marquee is very visible and offers passing pedestrians and drivers the City’s constantly changing public announcements.  (Maybe the most expensive Non-Income Producing Sign on the East Coast and it is owned by We the Taxpayers!)

On 4 January 2012, Mayor Richard Alcombright gave a Main Street tour to U.S. Representative Richard Neal as he wanted Neal to understand his Plan for connecting MCLA’s Performing Arts Department and its Arts Management Program to The Mohawk with plans for Classrooms and Special Events Downtown.  The Mayor wanted Neal’s support in attracting the necessary Millions to follow up with the restoration plans.

On 29 September 2012, there was a successful one night event at The Mohawk.  On the 75th Anniversary of The Mohawk, “The Spirit of Johnny Cash,” fund raising performance took place to a sold out 600 ticket house.  MASS MoCA produced this event.  Tickets were priced from $75 to $12.  MCLA provided the talent for the opening band and volunteers and the proceeds were split between the Mohawk Theater Restoration Project and the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.  It was a great day in the recent history of North Adams and for Main Street.

MASS MoCA is only 3-blocks away, but it’s Website had this Note:  This show is at the Mohawk Theater on Main Street in downtown North Adams, not at MASS MoCA.

In 2012, Mayor Richard Alcombright made several announcements about The Mohawk.  Shortly after the one night concert, the Mayor announced again that he was in continued talks with MCLA about a future collaboration and that he had hired consultants to put together a plan.  That was 2+ years ago!    

Here we are in the beginning of 2015 and nothing has happened to advance Next Step Plans for The Mohawk.  MASS MoCA has abandoned any connections to The Mohawk.  Maybe if Main Street changed its name to MASS MoCA Way, the Museum might sense some connections.  MCLA has pretty much abandoned Main Street except for Gallery 51.  The Mayor has dropped any interest in The Mohawk in favor of The Partnership’s pet project:  Greylock Market - The Flavor-of-the-Month.  A poor choice of projects – at this time - in my opinion, to advance the well-being of North Adams.  

Since no one is advancing any ideas, thoughts, dreams, concepts, etc. regarding the future of The Mohawk, I will offer the following:


James Turrell is a 71-year old light artist who has a background in mathematics, perceptual psychology, spirituality and flying airplanes.  Turrell began to construct projections that produce illusionistic geometric shapes.  Turrell uses natural light, tungsten, fluorescent, fibre-optic, LED, etc. to create his art which can be found in museums and private collections around the world.   In recent years, Turrell has had major exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  In fact, Turrell’s Aten Reign (2013) at the Guggenheim attracted almost 500,000 Visitors – the museum’s highest exhibition attendance ever.  A major retrospective is now underway at the National Gallery of Australia.  For some of the Turrell exhibits, waivers must be signed due to their mind altering and intense experiences.  MASS MoCA’s Joe Thompson recently announced that he has attracted James Turrell to install immersive environments as part of the Museum’s On Campus Phase III Expansion.
The Guggenheim 2013.  © James Turrell
I’m here to suggest to the Commonwealth, City and to the MASS MoCA Board of Directors that they instruct Joe Thompson to focus James Turrell to The Mohawk.  Turrell should be able to create a world-class Light Installation in The Vacant Mohawk to be in place for a period of twenty years.  

This should be Free and Open to the Public at least 12 p.m. and 12 a.m. During the Single Day A Year that MASS MoCA is Free to the Public, The Mohawk might charge 20 cents.  Besides bringing Many Thousands of Visitors to Main Street and the Revitalized Hoosac River, the shops and restaurants will thrive again as they did in the late 1930s.  

These many thousands who might otherwise not visit North Adams or MASS MoCA will now pay the $23 to enter and experience MASS MoCA’s many great offerings, so MASS MoCA will have Many More Thousands of paying visitors in this scheme.  It is a Win/Win situation.  Will they do the Right Thing?  The James Turrell Watertank Exhibition should still take place a few steps away from the Anselm Kiefer Exhibition on the MASS MoCA Gated Campus.  (Check out the free James Turrell: A Retrospective App for your smart phone or device.) 

In the past, there were several debates about the theater and the various seating and stage layouts for The Mohawk, regional competition and how was this new venue going to be managed and by whom?  In this scheme, those issues don’t arise.  The City should require that MASS MoCA produce and manage this space out of the $25.42 Million Grant they received from the Tax Payers of MA.  In 2035, the City’s and MASS MoCA’s relationships to The Mohawk can be revisited.

Main Street, North Adams, 1935 

The reality is that even with MassMoCA's Phase II, 100,000-square-foot expansion, very little economic spillover to Main Street will occur. it is only with a  free Turrell at the Mohawk with late hours that Main Street and the community at large will be positively re-energized economically and psychologically. 

The Greylock Market and MASS MoCA will be owned effectively by investors and managers living in Williamstown.  They aren’t affected by a deserted Main Street.  The North Adams taxpayers are affected by a deserted Main Street and the Mohawk on empty. 

Got a better plan? Let me know.

Ralph Brill, President
Box 786
North Adams, MA 01247-0786
800.294 2811

13 January 2015


Blogger Martin Langeveld said...

Ahem. The city of North Adams can not "instruct" Joe Thompson what to do. Least of all, to take on the financial risk of the Mohawk in order to bring in the work of one particular artist. 500,000 visitors to the Guggenheim will not translate to 500,000 visitors to the Mohawk, or to any number that will "save" the city. If you want to save the city (or at least to revitalize the downtown) have another look at that postcard. See all those cars? That's what's missing, ever since Route 2 was routed off Main Street. Stop listening to the traffic engineers, and close down the bypass that removes virtually all traffic from Main Street. Business follows traffic. Come check out Downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, if you're skeptical.

8:32 PM  

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