Rural Rules: 20 Questions for MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson on the Museum’s 10th Anniversary
Although MASS MoCA is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend, its founding director, Joseph C. Thompson, has been involved with MASS MoCA since it was conceived in 1987. A 1981 graduate of Williams College who has masters degrees in both art history and business from the University of Pennsylvania, Thompson has made MASS MoCA a museum with an international reputation but a local flavor. While it champions the global avant garde, it also supports local artists and functions as a multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary community center—the best of all worlds on a 13-acre campus of reclaimed 19th century factory buildings. Like most rural residents. Thompson loves nature and when Rural Intelligence asked him 20 Questions we learned that his favorite way to experience the outdoors is from a small airplane or a kayak.
1. Where do you go when you need serenity?
Vieques, if we have a week. Mt Riga’s upper lake [in Salisbury, CT] if we have a weekend. A low flight in our small Grumman Tiger through the nap of the Berkshires if I only have an hour. North Adams Airport (right) is one of the most beautiful in the United States—once you get comfortable with the idea of landing on the side of Mount Greylock.
2. Where do you go when you crave buzz?
To work, almost every morning . . . that’s usually more than enough buzz.
3. What are your favorite library and/or bookstore?
Our kids are regulars at the Williamstown Library: Mindy Hackner, the children’s librarian, is a gift. Oblong Books (left) in Millerton, NY, is small, but on target.
4. What’s you favorite place for bargain hunting?
Greenwald Pragmatics. Bill Greenwald can make anything electromechanical, and he’ll make it for half what anybody else can. He’s also a great source for organic shitake mushrooms…how’s that for singular combination?
5. What do you buy for yourself when you need a treat and want to splurge?
A coconut-chocolate ice cream cone at Lickety Split (right).
6. What’s your favorite way to spend a Friday night?
At home, on the porch, lawn just mowed, with family, gin and tonic (made with lime and Angostura bitters) in hand.
7. What’s your favorite way to spend a Sunday morning?
At home, reading the paper. Though I complain about it a lot, I’m addicted to the Times.
8. What’s your favorite one-hour drive from your house?
Route 8 east from Adams, then down through Cummington and Goshen to Northampton. There are still open fields along that route: in so much of the rest of the Berkshires, shaggy, second growth, second-rate forests and brush obscure the beauty of the land. The 18th and 19th century farmers who claimed these beautiful valleys and hillside meadows, framing pastures with stone walls, are turning in their graves. Upstate New York is doing a better job tending the land than we are in Massachusetts and Connecticut. We misconstrue trees as a sign of nature, and have come to think that trees are almost sacred.
9. Where’s your favorite place to hear music?
MASS MoCA’s Alt Cabaret series, outdoors in Courtyard C (left). People are slowly figuring out that MASS MoCA’s eclectic program of indie rock, and new music in general, is among the best in New England . . . and we plan on doing even more.
10. Where do you shop for clothes?
I have little interest in clothes, and rarely shop. There’s a store in Philadelphia – Boyd’s – that has a good selection of extra long suits, which I visit once every 5 or 6 years.
11. What’s your favorite hardware store or nursery?
Greenberg’s (North Adams) for hardware – they are well stocked and knowledgeable; Carr Hardware (Pittsfield and North Adams) for paint; RK Miles in Williamstown for weekend projects. They all have great staff, who know what they’re doing. My wife [Jennifer Trainer Thompson] gathers flowers at Caretaker, a community farm, though I’m not much for indoor plants and flower arrangements: they take up too much physical and psychological space. That’s always a problem when it comes to decorating tables for special events at MASS MoCA.
12. What’s your favorite historical site?
NASA, Houston, TX, though I doubt they view themselves as a historical site. But it is one amazing place: you can still touch 1966 there, you can feel the vast ambition, science, and heroism . . . as well as the frustration and painful, bureaucratic mediocrity of today’s convoluted space program. It’s both the best and worst of our country, and it’s still alive. I find the spot near Wellfleet, on the Cape, where Marconi built his historic antenna for transatlantic radio transmission, profoundly moving. The fact that they actually fly the antique aircraft at Rhinebeck (above) is simply amazing: everybody should see that, and soon. Those Rhinebeck mechanic/pilots are a rare—and aging!—breed of cat who won’t be with us forever.
13. Who do you trust to recommend wines?
Bob West, at West’s Variety and Liquor. We have friends from New York who shop there.
14. What three things do you always do with out of town guests?
Make them pancakes, show them our new shows at MASS MoCA, and, in good weather, grill something.
15. Who are your local heroes?
I have dozens, so here are just a few: Jennifer Thompson, for making the two things I love most – my family and MASS MoCA – so much better than I ever could. Jack Wadsworth, for being such a man of action: when most people are still thinking about it, he’s already 6 steps ahead, damning the torpedoes. Herbert Allen, for his strange, sometimes contradictory combination of razor sharp intellect and deep personal loyalties. Ella Baff (left) of Jacob’s Pillow, for her poise and programming verve. Jock Reynolds, of Yale University (who recently teamed up with MASS MoCA on our LeWitt project) for his unstinting generosity, mind-boggling recall, and precise eye. Michael Conforti, of the Clark, because reinventing an institution is even tougher than inventing one. Nancy Fitzpatrick, because she reminds us all how deeply pleasureable – and advantageous—it can be to bring delight to someone else.
16. Where’s your favorite place for breakfast?
17. What newspapers, blogs or websites do you read every day?
I’m a reformed (and sometimes relapsed) New York Times junkie, though of late they get it systematically wrong a lot of the time—Iraq and Duke University, to name just two, and I could name more: Sebastian Smee of the Globe is doing really interesting writing about the arts now, so I follow his critical pieces. Christopher Knight of the LA Times often has something unique to say, and Edgers at the Globe, who blends gossip, opinion and news in a way that both irritates and informs. We’re very lucky to have John Mitchell writing for our local North Adams Transcript, his occasional art reviews are detailed and offbeat – really, he should be writing for national arts magazines. I still mourn Seth Rogovoy’s departure from the regional cultural scene (well, he’s doing good work for Berkshire Living, but I miss his weekly art and music criticism, and our region is so much the poorer for its absence). I rarely tune into blogs, and I’ve managed to totally sidestep Facebook and Twitter, because Jennifer tells me I already spend way too much time with my Treo. Your own RI is well informed and trustworthy– especially south of Pittsfield— and I hope it continues to claw its way north and east. I’m addicted to a small kayak/trimaran made by Hobie – called an Adventure Islander, it’s lightning fast, with a large self-furling sail, ingenious peddles, and retractable center board and rudder – and the Hobie blog site is great.
18. Who have been your favorite visitors to MASS MoCA?
I love walking through with artists. They just see more, and are usually pleasantly irreverent.
19. What’s your favorite theatre?
You kidding?...The Hunter Center at MASS MoCA (left).
20. What five things are you most looking forward to doing this summer?
Hearing music at MASS MoCA (that sounds like an advertisement, which it is, but it’s also true, check out our lineup), spending a fat 3 weeks on the water with my family (Southwest Harbor, ME, and Buzzard’s Bay are on the list), flying, working with colleagues to dream up an interesting venture or two at MASS MoCA, and trying my hand at beekeeping with my 11-year old son Trainer: We just set up two hives, and they appear to be queenright and productive, but we’ll see how that unfolds. Bees are interesting. They really do work all the time.
Dan’s Diary: Jarvis Rockwell—The Son Also Rises (May 5, 2009)
The Porches Inn at MASS MoCA (May 5, 2009)
Diversions for Shack Wacky Kids (March 10, 2009)
Seeing Through Glass: One Composer, Two Events (January 7, 2009)
The Bold Ones: Celebrating Sol LeWitt at MASS MoCA (November 16, 2008)
Cinemas Paradiso (July 17, 2008)