Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s galleries in Boston reopened as the MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) on Feb. 22 after a $12.5 million rebranding and renovation that took nearly two years.
The renovation by Boston’s designLAB Architects and Dimeo Construction of Boston, Providence, and New Haven makes the contemporary, non-collecting museum inside feel fresh, crisp, spare, bright. Exhibition space has expanded by 21 percent, from 12,400 to 15,000 square feet. It doesn’t immediately feel larger, but the new layout feels more clearly organized and better at foregrounding the art. The renovations also add new lighting, an elevator, and an expanded art preparatory workshop and load-in area. New climate and humidity controls “allow for year-round programming for the first time,” according to the institution.
“I think because of the new facilities we will be able to attract a wider range of artists and we’ll be able to accommodate a wider range of artwork,” says Lisa Tung, executive director of MassArt’s exhibition halls since 2008.
The changes address a significant problem that has faced the venue: Though Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s galleries have consistently staged some of the sharpest exhibitions in the region, too many people in the greater Boston art scene are unfamiliar with the exhibition space. Part of the problem was that the entrance was hidden inside a nondescript brick college building. To find the galleries, you had to travel down two hallways, with few signs to guide you.
The renovation makes the facility much more visible by moving the entrance right onto Huntington Avenue, close to the Longwood Medical Area MBTA Green Line stop, and splashing the new MAAM logo large across the building’s upper floors.
The new MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) name and brand—developed with the Boston’s Moth Design and Boston messaging firm 43,000 Feet—serves to clarify what the place does and signals ambition. “It signifies another level of quality,” Tung says.
Admission remains free. “Because we’re free, it allows more people to experience this,” Tung says, before noting, “I don’t want people thinking it’s free so it’s not as good. It’s free and it’s just as good or better.”
The changes are the end result of work with a museum consultant more than a decade ago, Tung says, who recommended that the MassArt galleries needed a more visible front door, should professionalize their facilities (improve climate controls), be more community focused (public programming and education), and have a more readily identifiable logo and brand.
For the MassArt Art Museum’s debut, the front doors open onto a kaleidoscopic wall collage in the entryway and lobby assembled from cut-up old MassArt exhibition catalogues by the collaborative Ghost of a Dream (Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom). The mod lobby has a minimalist reception desk on the right side. Behind it is a new “Big Ideas Studio” education and workshop space furnished with long white tables and rainbow hued seats to accommodate three dozen people.
“We really want MAAM to feel like a place people can just hang out,” Tung says.
Straight ahead, beyond glass doors, a pink and blue cartoon tree by Momo Pixel beckons you into “Game Changers,” a smart, thoughtful exhibition in the renovated Bakalar Gallery of artists exploring the intersection of art, video games and other immersive digital experiences. “They are mixing these worlds,” says Assistant Curator Darci Hanna, the lead organizer of the exhibition. “They work in the digital dimension. They’re bringing these virtual worlds into the real world too.”
In Momo Pixel’s game “Hair Nah,” players smack white hands away from “the perverse action of touching a Black woman’s hair without permission.” Skawennati uses the virtual world “Second Life” to revisit watershed moments in indigenous history. Brent Watanabe modifies “Grand Theft Auto V” to follow a deer wandering the violent video game. Tracy Fullerton’s game explores Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Juan Obando modifies “Pro Evolution Soccer” to stage a match between Mexico’s anti-capitalist indigenous Zapatista movement and Italy’s Inter Milan soccer team—which Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos proposed, but which never came to fruition.
“Game Changers” is an exhibition mainly of artists of color working to integrate digital spaces and, as Hanna says, “make these realms more welcoming for everybody.”
Back at the main lobby, as you climb the blonde wood stairs to the second floor, one of the tentacles of Joana Vasconcelos’s showstopper installation “Valkyrie Mumbet” reveals itself. The Portuguese artist’s first U.S. solo exhibition offers the debut of a newly commissioned piece: a 30-some-foot-tall inflatable sculpture that is part soft chandelier, part giant octopus. It’s covered with a patchwork of brilliant colors of patterned fabric studded with beads and lights.
The sculpture is inspired by Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, considered to be the first enslaved woman in Massachusetts to successfully sue for her freedom in 1781 under then new Massachusetts Constitution, setting a precedent that led to the abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth.
The fun, luscious sculpture is suspended from the 37-foot-tall ceiling and fills the Paine Gallery. Renovations raised the ceiling by about 11 feet, revealing the 1906 building’s original terracotta vaulting and supporting grid of steel girders. The updated gallery offers a blonde wood floor, white walls and tall arched windows with frosted glass, bringing in soft sunlight.
“I felt like the first show should be entirely suspended from the ceiling because we could never do that before,” Tung says.
A sign downstairs highlights that the museum is a certified part of the Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) movement, paying interns as well as the artists the institution presents. “All the artists who are exhibiting get paid,” Tung says. “Art is not free.”
The MassArt Art Museum is “teaching museum,” Tung says, with a mission to support faculty and curriculum at “the only freestanding public college of art and design in the country” (as the school describes itself). They aim, she says, to prepare students for museum careers—including, they hope, helping more people of color find work in the museum field.
New curatorial offices overlook “Valkyrie Mumbet” from 20 feet above the Paine Gallery floor. Tung notes that the office has more desks than they have staff right now—allowing them to accommodate more student assistants and signaling an ongoing ambition to grow.
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