With a $12.5 Million Revamp, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design Has Turned Its Galleries Into a Contemporary Art Museum

The MassArt Art Museum is opening to the public this weekend.

Skawennati, She Gathers the Rain. Courtesy of MassArt Art Museum.
Skawennati, She Gathers the Rain. Courtesy of MassArt Art Museum.

This weekend, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston has redesigned and rebranded a small campus gallery into a new contemporary art museum. The 15,000-square-foot MassArt Art Museum, which cost $12.5 million to revamp, has been in the works for more than a decade, with construction beginning in 2017.

“It took nine years [of fundraising] to completely transform and renovate the space,” said Lisa Tung, who was appointed the executive director of the museum, previously known as the Bakalar and Paine Galleries, in 2008.

One of Tung’s first orders of business as director—she was promoted after ten years as the institution’s curator—was to hire a consultant through the American Alliance of Museums to help chart a course for the future of the museum.

The most pressing change, the consultant said, was to give the institution a front door. “We had been programming contemporary art for a long time, but we were buried in the bowels of the building, so people couldn’t really find us, and we couldn’t get foot traffic off the street,” Tung said. And the museum facilities, built in 1906, lacked air conditioning, humidity control, elevators, and adequate restrooms.

Lisa Tung, executive director of the MassArt Art Museum. Photo by Joanne Smith.

Lisa Tung, executive director of the MassArt Art Museum. Photo by Joanne Smith.

To make the museum, previously something of a campus secret, more accessible to the public, the building now opens directly onto Huntington Avenue—an arts thoroughfare also home to the nearby Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—with a lobby and outdoor plaza to welcome visitors. Rebranding as MAAM, the museum hopes to establish itself as an identifiable and well-known institution.

Thanks to the redesign overseen by designLAB architects and Dimeo Construction, there are now ample bathrooms, climate control systems, and a new preparatory space that will allow staff to work on future shows without closing the galleries for extended periods of times. Exhibitions will now run for at least 12 weeks (in the past, they could be as short as six, with the museum closing over the summer due to the heat). The renovations also opened up the ceiling on the upper floor to reveal terracotta rafters and steel beams, and creating a 37-foot-tall space that can accommodate large-scale work.

Taking full advantage of its new capacity is the museum’s inaugural exhibition, the first US solo museum outing for Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. Titled “Valkyrie Mumbet,” the show is the latest in the artist’s “Valkyrie” series, which is based on the female figures from Norse mythology who live and die on the battlefield.

Joana Vasconcelos, Valkyrie Mumbet, installation view. Photo by Will Howcroft, courtesy of MassArt Art Museum.

Joana Vasconcelos, Valkyrie Mumbet, installation view. Photo by Will Howcroft, courtesy of MassArt Art Museum.

“Joana’s work is about celebrating and honoring women and their accomplishments and women’s work, such as embroidery and craft and textiles and crocheting and things like that,” said Tung, who commissioned a new work by the artist for the occasion. “She was willing to dream really big.”

Vasconcelos wanted the project to honor a woman from Massachusetts history, so she chose Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, an enslaved woman who in 1781 sued for her freedom based on the Massachusetts constitution, which declares all people free and equal. “When she won her case, that was a key moment in the abolishment of slavery,” Tung said. “Joana really liked the fact that one person could make such a big difference.”

Momo Pixel, <em>Momoland</em> (still). Courtesy of MassArt Art Museum.

Momo Pixel, Momoland (still). Courtesy of MassArt Art Museum.

The resulting artwork is a site-specific ode to Freeman, a monumental textile sculpture that took six months to sew by hand. Visitors can walk underneath the sculpture, which hangs from the gallery ceiling, filling almost the entirety of the room. “You can’t really describe it,” said Tung. “You have to really see it—it is a truly spectacular piece.”

The museum is also hosting a group exhibition titled “Game Changers: Video Games & Contemporary Art.” In addition to playable games and Virtual Reality, the show will include more traditional painting and sculpture inspired by video games.

Installation view of "Ghost of a Dream: Yesterday Is Here" at the MassArt Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the MassArt Art Museum.

Installation view of “Ghost of a Dream: Yesterday Is Here” at the MassArt Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the MassArt Art Museum.

And at the museum’s entrance is an art duo known as Ghost of a Dream has been commissioned to create a site-specific installation titled Yesterday Is Here. The psychedelic work features quilt- and mosaic-like patterns created from ephemera from the museum’s history. The artists cut up more than 30 years of exhibition catalogues, posters, exhibition cards, and newspaper clippings to create the work.

“We wanted to have an immersive art experience in the lobby,” Tung said. “When the viewer walks in, they know they’re in a contemporary space.”

Joana Vasconcelos: Valkyrie Mumbet” is on view at the MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave, Boston, Massachusetts, February 22–August 2, 2020.

Ghost of a Dream: Yesterday Is Here” is on view at the MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave, Boston, Massachusetts, February 22, 2020–February 28, 2021.

Game Changers: Video Games & Contemporary Art” is on view at the MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave, Boston, Massachusetts, February 22–April 19, 2020.


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