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BOSTON — It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny, Saturday afternoon in February and Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), the nation’s first freestanding, publicly funded arts college, also has an uncharacteristic line around the block. The line, kept in order by a combination of Boston police officers and friendly greeters in badges handing out candy, is buzzing with excitement: It’s opening day for MassArt Art Museum (MAAM), a much-anticipated new, free-to-the-public contemporary art museum, housed within the college as of February 2020.
Before the end of the museum’s first day, over 2,600 visitors passed through its front doors, so some waited for quite a while to get in, but no one waited quite as long to walk through this particular set of front doors as Lisa Tung, MAAM’s Executive Director.
Tung, with advising from museum consultancy M Goodwin, has been planning and fundraising a roadmap to these doors since 2008. In fact, the doors were literally the first thing on that map.
Though the school has been doing contemporary art programming in its gallery spaces for 30 years, MassArt is notoriously warren-like, making it very difficult for visitors to even locate the galleries.
“You had to walk all around the school,” Tung explained in an interview with Hyperallergic. “There wasn’t a map, some parts of the school looked a little bit scary, and it wasn’t until you got into the actual galleries that you realized ‘ah here’s an art space!’ So, number one for us was to get a front door.”
Inside, the vision is still grander. The gallery spaces that have been converted into MAAM, though always spacious, were inhibited by their infrastructure.
“The shows were sometimes of museum quality,” Tung recalls, “but we were always limited by our physical space. We had no air conditioning, no relative humidity, no controllable heat whatsoever. No bathrooms. No elevators. No visitor lockers. It was literally just a space on campus.”
Tung made the case to the school’s administration that “If MassArt is educating the next generation of artists, designers and educators, it needs to have a world class museum.” Not only would such a museum serve as a laboratory for students to learn different aspects of the particular trades they’ve chosen to study — for example, how to lead educational programs within a museum — it would also provide them with what she described as “aspirational space.”
On opening day the crowds were peppered with students and alumni who seemed to affirm Tung’s vision.
“It’s really exciting to have a museum finally,” said Sophia Gaudiosi, a MassArt freshman waiting in line, and bursting with pride. “I invited my whole family to come today.”
Sophia is at the beginning of her MassArt adventure, but alums, like 2015 graduate Hilde-Kari Guttormsen, are just as starry-eyed.
“It’s such a wonderful use of the space!” she exclaimed. “This is where we did our senior exhibit, and just to see how the space looks now, wow.”
Guttormsen continued by admiring the star of the opening: Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos’s monumental, site-specific, installation “Valkyrie Mumbet” (2020). The 37-foot inflatable and crocheted octopus-like creature is indeed impressive. It’s bright, nuanced, and understandably inspiring to the MassArt community that will live with and work around it until August 2020. An homage to once-enslaved Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, who won her own freedom in court in 1781 and helped to make slavery illegal in Massachusetts, “Valkyrie Mumbet” fills the whole second level of the 15,000-square-foot museum.
The group exhibition on the first floor, Game Changers displays a collection of interactive, video game-based pieces, including one by MassArt professor Juan Obando, “Pro Revolution Soccer” (2019), inspired by an unlikely connection between Inter Milan (Italian football club) and the Zapatista Army in Chiapas, Mexico.
People of all ages and descriptions tried their hands at games, and in the half-light of the room, I caught a glimpse of children that couldn’t have been much older than three or four, operating at least two different games on their own.
The fact that the museum is inclusive is no accident. It’s part of why it took over 10 years to open. Tung wanted MAAM’s final buildout to be funded privately rather than through a loan from the state, because she did not want to have to charge admission. “We believe in accessible art and education,” Tung said.
The most prominent individual contributor to MAAM was Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher (alumnus, 1960) who gave $1 million to the project. Foundations like the 1434 Foundation, Cabot Family Charitable Trust, Hearst Foundations, and Mabel Louise Riley Foundation were also substantial donors.
Part of the museum’s mission is also to act as a pipeline to museum careers for students and alumni. Zoe Cronin, a current freshman, and Abby Ouellette, a recent graduate, both working at the opening, already feel part of the museum’s DNA. “They hire mostly students and alumni, so that’s really nice,” said Cronin. Ouellette nodded and added, “It’s really amazing because all of the positions are paid positions so they take care of the people that work here.”
When I asked members of the opening day crowd about their hopes and expectations for the museum, certain themes came up repeatedly. People are eager for a space that can show large-scale work, so they don’t have to go all the way to MassMOCA, in the Western part of the state, to see this kind of thing. They want an urban arts center that is welcoming and accessible to everyone, especially children and folks in the immediate neighborhood. Most interestingly, they want to see contemporary artwork that is somehow more contemporary feeling than they are seeing elsewhere in Boston.
Sheetal Sarite, visiting MassArt for the first time, is hoping that at least some of the work she sees at MAAM is by students. “I’m very excited to see the new art, from the new generations,” she said.
Kirsten Borror, who drove in from the suburbs for opening day is hoping for exposure to “voices that are happening now, at this time on this earth, while I’m spinning on it.” She added, “I’m hoping it’s a little more on the edge than what you see at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) or the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA.)”
For Guttormsen, a former MD PhD Harvard-professor-turned-art-student, the first exhibitions have hit the mark exactly. “This is fabulous. Look at all the young people here today! Keep it going I say, keep it going!”
The MassArt Art Museum (621 Huntington Ave, Boston) is now open to the public.