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Look who’s turning 20! MASS MoCA celebrates two decades of cutting edge art

  • Part of a video installation, “Give It or Leave It,” by multidisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith, who has a new exhibit opening at MASS MoCA on May 25. Image courtesy of Cauleen Smith

  • Singer, songwriter, political activist and artist Annie Lennox brings her new exhibit, “Now I Let You Go ...” to MASS MoCA to help celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary. Image by Tali Lennox

  • The good-time band Tank and the Bangas will keep MASS MoCA’s 20th anniversary party going on May 25. Image by Nick Spanos

  •  “Swell,” oil on canvas by Keith Sklar, is part of a new MASS MoCA exhibit, “Suffering Fom Realness,” by 16 different artists. Image courtesy MASS MoCA

  • The Pretenders, in their only North American gig this summer, will play a benefit concert at MASS MoCA July 26. Image courtesy MASS MoCA

  • MASS MoCA will cellebrate its 20th anniversary on Saturday, May 25, with new exhibits, live music and a free Block Party. Photo by Nooshig Varjabedian/courtesy MASS MoCA

  • “Seeing Through Time,” oil on canvas by Titus Kaphar, part of a new group exhibit, “Suffering From Realness,” at MASS MoCA. Image by Christopher Gardner/courtesy MASS MoCA



Staff Writer
Thursday, May 23, 2019

It had a long history in town as an industrial site, from early small-scale businesses like shoe manufacturers, cabinet shops and brickyards to larger affairs like a textile-printing company. From the mid 1940s to the mid 1980s, the downtown North Adams complex, with multiple buildings, became home to the Sprague Electric Company, which at its height had over 4,100 employees in a town of 18,000 people.

Then, as was happening to old industrial buildings across New England, the complex sat vacant for some time — until local business and civic leaders, regional museum directors, state legislators and others hatched a plan to turn the site into a new museum, one that could be a setting for large-scale and varied art, works that in many cases defied easy classification.

On Saturday, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — the complex the New York Times memorably called “a weird and wonderful place” a couple years ago — celebrates its 20th anniversary of that idea becoming a reality, with the opening of several new exhibits, some musical performances, a “block party” with lawn games and more.

And MASS MoCA has also unveiled a summer performance schedule that will bring a number of big names to the museum, including The Pretenders, Wilco, new indie pop phenom Maggie Rogers and others.

This Saturday, perhaps the most intriguing show will be a solo concert by Annie Lennox, who in a career spanning about 40 years has won a slew of songwriting and performance awards in both her native Britain and the U.S., achieving particular success in the 1980s as one half, with Dave Stewart, of the synth-pop duo Eurythmics.

Jodi Joseph, MASS MoCA’s director of communications, says Lennox will host a 4 p.m. show in the museum’s Hunter Center, playing selected songs on piano and sharing some personal stories about her career (including as a political activist and philanthropist). The show, a benefit for the Annie Lennox Foundation and MASS MoCA’s Fund for New Music, has sold out, but you can call the museum box office at (413) 662-2111 to be added to a wait list.

But Joseph says Lennox’s concert, which kicks of the 20th anniversary events, is also a prelude to the opening of her exhibit “Now I Let You Go ...” in which Lennox has filled a giant “earthen mound” with many intensely personal items from her life — name tags, photos, her children’s shoes, even a piano — as a way of reflecting on her past and present.

“These are things from throughout her life,” said Joseph, who notes that Lennox’s installation is making its public debut at MASS MoCA and will be accompanied by a printed “field guide” that identifies many of the objects on display and their place in her life and career. 

A free opening reception will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. for the exhibit and for three other new ones:

■“We Already Have What We Need,” Cauleen Smith. A multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker, Smith has combined several things in her new exhibit: banners, video, an installation and drawings. According to MASS MoCA, the heart of her show is a new video installation that explores just what our “basic needs” are, from food and shelter to personal relationships to the environment. 

■“Looking at North Adams,” Joe Manning. Among his work, Florence writer and historian Joe Manning has written two books about North Adams, examining its history, architecture and the mood of current residents. The MASS MoCA exhibit takes selections from his writing and places them in many spots that offer window views to the places and history Manning references.

■“Suffering From Realness,” various artists. This group show of 16 artists, from across the country, offers a variety of work — painting, photography, sculpture, installation — that examines “the human condition from all sides ... addressing racism, violence, gender equality, the politicized body of wartime, the anxious body, the complexity of responsibility, and the future,” according to press notes.

The museum is also hosting a free block party (food and drinks are sold separately) from 5 to 8:30 p.m. in the front courtyard; “lawn games, live music, and lively performances” are promised. And at 8:30 p.m., Tank and the Bangas, who mix funk, R&B, hip hop and jazz (and some spoken word as well), take over the courtyard for a general admission ($20) concert. The band won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest in 2017, beating out 5,999 other artist submissions to the popular music series.

More music to come

MASS MoCA will feature plenty of other live music over the next few months, including the return of Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival June 28–30, which features the seminal alt-rock band, its members’ side projects, and numerous other acts such as The Feelies and Jonathan Richman. And during Aug. 2-4, the Bang on a Can Festival returns as well for its 18th season of multiple, back-to-back concerts that feature the new music of composers from many genres. 

As well, there’s the July 30 show by one of indie pop’s hottest names, singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers, who has gone from viral video fame for her song “Alaska” to releasing a major-label album, “Heard It In a Past Life,” that debuted at number two on the U.S. Billboard charts in January.

Also on tap: a show by The Pretenders, who play a benefit concert at the museum July 26 — the band’s only North American appearance for summer 2019. Proceeds from the concert will support the Hans and Kate Morris Fund for New Music, which underwrites new work by emerging and established musicians. 

Joseph says the Pretenders played a private show in North Adams last year and, during the band’s stay, founder and lead singer and songwriter Chrissie Hynde toured the museum and liked what she saw. Hynde “struck up a friendship” with MASS MoCA Director Joseph Thompson, she noted, who invited her to come back at some point “and so now we have this show.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information about MASS MoCA’s 20th anniversary celebration and other events, and to purchase tickets, visit massmoca.org.