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Between the Lines: MoCA Not Raising All Boats

When will contemporary art generate financial benefits for Main Street?

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

If Mass MoCA can get its patrons from the far reaches of its enormous parking lot to its renovated factory buildings, can the noteworthy contemporary art museum get its financial support to trickle from its parking lot to Main Street in downtown North Adams?

It's a question that alludes not to the dripping clocks of surrealist painter Salvador Dali's "Persistence of Memory," but rather to the challenge of economic development that lies at the heart of a new documentary film, Farewell to Factory Towns?, which is produced by retired sociology professor Dr. Maynard Seider and screens throughout the Valley this month.

"[MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson] talked about that problem," notes Seider, who taught in North Adams at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) for over 30 years. "He says the distance from one end of the parking lot to the entrance of the museum is the same distance from one end of the parking lot to Main Street. But people don't go."

Farewell to Factory Towns?, showing in North Adams on April 17 and Amherst on April 19 (FarewellToFactoryTowns.com), is Seider's first film. But questions about Mass MoCA and North Adams' economic development have been on his mind for years.

For half a century, the Sprague Electric Company was the driving force for economic security in North Adams. "Everybody worked at Sprague," says Seider, noting that in 1966, at the factory's height, 4,000 of North Adams' 19,000 residents were employed by Sprague. That changed in 1985, when the company closed its factories, leaving the community to wonder what would happen next—a question that has informed the creation of Farewell to Factory Towns?.

"I was part of the Labor Community Coalition active in the '80s," says Seider, "during the time when industry left." He was also teaching a course called The Social History of North Adams. "I learned that the New Deal was very important to North Adams during the 1930s, that the WPA [Works Project Association] played an important role, as did the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] out on Mount Greylock."

Then in 1995, Seider co-wrote the screenplay for a local play, The Sprague Years. "It looked at the history of labor relations at Sprague Electric Company," says Seider. "That was a new genre for me."

The play, directed by local activist Court Dorsey, who also narrates Farewell to Factory Towns?, was Seider's first attempt to popularize the results of his research on the social history of North Adams, an investigation he wanted "to take to the next level," he explains, with his documentary film.

"The conclusion that I and others have reached is that while the museum has been successful in terms of bringing people into the museum and [generating] a certain amount of activity within the museum itself, it hasn't translated to the rest of North Adams," Seider states. "If you go around the downtown area of North Adams, there's not much foot traffic. There are stores that are closed. There's not much activity taking place. So the question then became, if this is the reality, and it doesn't seem to be changing, then what's the future for a place like North Adams?"

"Sprague Electric was the biggest producer of capacitors in the world," Seider continues. "It took over the facilities of Arnold Print Works, which was the biggest producer of print works in the world. So in these 27 buildings, which are a block from City Hall, they had the biggest producer of print works, capacitors, and now the biggest museum of contemporary art in the world."

But Seider argues for a diverse approach. "Part of the problem is expecting one thing, whether it's a casino or a jail or a museum, to change things dramatically," he points out. "When people put all of their hopes in that one thing, you stop looking elsewhere."

Seider hopes his film will urge people to reconsider the success of the New Deal and encourage legislators to enact another one. "The jobs are not coming from the private sector," he says, adding that those that do "tend to be low-paying service sector jobs, and even those are very competitive."

"We need social movements," Seider says, to help put through the massive jobs program American society needs. "It wasn't as if FDR just decided on his own that we need a New Deal."

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Perhaps this film ought to be on permanent exhibit at Mass MoCA itself. What a great venue in which people might contemplate its significance.

Posted by Nancy Flam on 4.10.12 at 19:44
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