the summer of l998, my Uncle Bud and I took a "hard hat tour"
of the enormous abandoned Sprague Electric compound – 28
buildings thrown catywampus over 18 acres – which was being
converted to America's largest museum of contemporary art. MASS
MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) had been funded
by a hard-won $35 million dollar economic development grant from
the state. It was supposed to attract tourists to North Adams.
Feeling a little ridiculous in cartoon-colored hard hats, Uncle
Bud and I walked through the dust and rubble, trying to imagine
galleries, a cafØ, a performance space. We were the only North
Adams natives in our tour group, the others were from New York,
Connecticut. Was our factory town already becoming a tourist attraction?
The tour guide, a Williams College student, read from index cards.
"In l984, when Sprague Electric closed its doors for good,
4,000 people – half the adults in North Adams – were
left without jobs." I almost started to cry. Why?
When the decline happened, I was old enough to experience it
but too young to understand. And I was hurt that the job of telling
the story of our once vibrant, now down-and-out town had been
reduced to a student reading from index cards. Travelling back
to California a couple of days after the Hard Hat Tour, all I
could think about was that museum. How could it be possible that
tens of thousands of tourists would flock to the post industrial
wasteland North Adams had become? To see contemporary art? It
seemed crazy, impossible. But I knew from personal experience
how over the past ten years, the Jesse Helms of this world had
viciously attacked art as a waste. So if art could do some good
in North Adams, as a filmmaker, I wanted the world to know.