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A Former Guggenheim Director Thinks Museums Need to be More Like Theme Parks

Thomas Krens has launched an ambitious and sprawling plan to reinvent a Massachusetts town, drawing massive amounts of tourism to the region with new, for-profit cultural spaces.

Architect Zhu Pei’s concept for the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (courtesy of the EMRCA)

North Adams, MA — Former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens has provided a detailed update about his ambitious and sprawling set of projects for North Adams, Massachusetts, a town already shaped in part by his visionary plan for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the 1980s. But beyond completing the process of turning the northern edge of the Berkshires into a major cultural destination, the new project is another push for a new kind of art museum that embraces bigger audiences and market values.

On February 10, in the last of a series of lectures at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown reflecting on his decades-long career, Krens offered an update about his plans, which have been evolving since 2015. It includes nine projects with several big names — most notably architects Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Zhu Pei — and lots of thoughts on how museums need to evolve to survive. In this case, that would be through experiential spaces that unabashedly borrow from theme parks, and would operate unapologetically for profit.

Krens said he and his team are preparing documents and a feasibility study that should be available to potential investors in late spring or summer. The hope is to offer a 25 percent return on investment and allow investors to take advantage of tax opportunity zones carved out by recent tax reform legislation.

Zhu Pei’s concept for the EMRCA museum

The centerpiece of the project is the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (EMRCA), a roughly 90,000-square foot museum with 9.5 miles of model train track running through a scale-model cityscape. Krens announced the new building would be designed by Chinese architect Zhu Pei, and is designed to suggest a high-speed train.

It will be located along a narrow strip of land in the center of town, though earlier editions had placed it at the Western Gateway Heritage State Park, a small and awkwardly situated state park in a former railyard. That space will be reserved for two other components of the plan — a craft distillery and a “Museum of Time,” featuring a private collection of industrial timepieces mostly from the 19th century.

Heritage State Park in North Adams, where there will be a craft distillery and Museum of Time (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Another important component is the Global Contemporary Art Museum, an exhibition and storage space for works from private collections first proposed for a space near the city airport. It will move to the south part of downtown, where a misguided “urban renewal” scheme in the 1960s left behind little more than a large parking lot and struggling retail center. In Krens’s plan, this area would become a park, with an open-design parking garage that could also double as an events space. This area — along with the 11-acre strip for EMRCA — was designated last spring by the state as an “Opportunity Zone,” which the IRS identifies as “economically-distressed” areas eligible for federal tax incentives as part of the tax reform bill passed in 2017.

Other key elements along Main Street are a 110-room luxury hotel and spa to be designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, and further down the street are plans to refurbish an unused 1938 theater, with Frank Gehry on board to create a high-tech, flexible-use performance space.

Krens’s interest in the region is a bit of a homecoming, as he graduated from Williams College in nearby Williamstown in 1969, and taught there for several years before becoming director of the Williams College Museum of Art. While there in 1985, he came up with a proposal to turn the enormous, abandoned Sprague Electric factory, which had been the center of the region’s economy for decades, into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), now one of the world’s largest contemporary art museums. It was a visionary and highly unlikely idea, and even though Krens left in 1988 to take a job at the Guggenheim, it was seen to completion by his protégé, current MASS MoCA Director Joseph Thompson.

Krens stayed at the Guggenheim until 2008, and returned to the North Adams area in 2013. His thinking is to build on “assets in place,” like MASS MoCA, Williams, the Clark, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He said that while the new cultural economy had given the region a sense of direction and identity, there is much left to do.

“This addresses that for the phenomenal success MASS MoCA has had, and the impressive growth of its physical space … [it] hasn’t had the impact we rather optimistically projected in the feasibility study,” he said at his lecture.

Krens noted there is still only a 15 percent overlap between visitors to the Clark and MASS MoCA, and that many visitors still just come for brief day trips. His hope is that with more overnight stays — abetted by a brace of new hotels opening in recent years like the new Williams Inn and the buzzy boutique hotel called Tourists — the effect would be “transformative.”

A 2017 economic impact analysis prepared by Stephen Sheppard, an economics professor at Williams and director of the Center for Creative Community Development, estimated that in the long term, the project could create up to 2,000 new jobs and add about $180 million per year to the Berkshire economy.

And that was a part of the pitch — Krens said this kind of project and development can address issues like opioid abuse, unemployment, and a lost sense of community. His talk was called “Unfinished Business: EMRCA and the Diseases of Despair.”

Land along the Hoosic River where the Zhu Pei-designed EMRCA will go (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

But while it marks unfinished business for North Adams and surrounding communities, it could also refer to Krens’s own place among museum visionaries, after he stepped down from the Guggenheim after 20 years. His legacy is open to interpretation. Most notably he spearheaded a number of efforts to expand the Guggenheim brand around the world — most successfully with the Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997. There were also projects in Las Vegas and Berlin, another smaller space in SoHo, and an ambitious but abandoned project for a new space along the East River. Supporters claimed the new “Global Guggenheim” and its larger audience pointed to a future of museums as more than repositories of objects. Detractors said it was wastefully expensive and came at the cost of crowd-pleasing rather than scholarly programming, all in glitzy yet hollow “McGuggenheims.”

EMRCA appears to be another effort by Krens to carry on the argument. In his talk at the Clark, he specifically talked about two infamous Guggenheim exhibitions from his tenure (two of the hundreds that were shown on his watch, he noted). One was The Art of the Motorcycle in 1998, which was popular but many dismissed as shallow, and a show of clothing by Armani in 2000 underwritten by the fashion house itself.

“These were audience generators,” Krens explained during his lecture. “It’s what we saw by tweaking the institution, not sacrificing the aesthetics, and expanding the concepts to address a wider audience.”

In describing his “concept direction,” Krens said important points are to broaden the audience include maintaining “impeccable aesthetics”; maximizing audience impact at minimal capital cost; a for-profit model based on private investment; integrated use of technology like digital modeling and augmented reality; and the ability to draw from “deep pools of content” with “huge narrative potential.”

That all this came together again in North Adams, Krens chalked up to a series of “serendipitous events.” He said he first came around to thinking about such a project in May 2013 after he was invited to a panel discussion at UCLA with Scott Trowbridge, vice president of creative and R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering. When Trowbridge observed that theme parks had become more like art museums, Krens argued that art museums needed to become more like theme parks.

Chris Burden “Metropolis II” in 2012 (image courtesy of Daryl Mitchell’s Flickstream)

He also mentioned seeing Chris Burden’s “Metropolis II,” a gallery-sized installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art featuring thousands of slot cars running on tracks through an intricate cityscape. He said when he first walked in it was off for maintenance, but that when he returned a short time later when it was running, the room was suddenly filled with about 200 people.

Krens also mentioned other museums that succeed in drawing an unexpected audience, like the California State Railroad Museum, the Glasgow Museum of Transportation, and the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg. He said, “If we can pull all this together — and that’s a big if, of course — then North Adams becomes the number one cultural destination in the country.”

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