North Adams, a post-industrial city in Berkshire County’s northeast corner, is a community defined by reinvention and reemergence. From the water-powered industries that spurred development and growth in the 18th and 19th centuries to the creative industries that support the economy today, its residents have continuously harnessed the city’s natural and man-made assets to evolve and succeed throughout the decades. The mill buildings that once housed North Adams’ manufacturing companies became the core resources for the city’s cultural birth, becoming the nexus of a robust, networked cultural community and economy.
North Adams may be the smallest city in the Commonwealth, but it is home to the largest contemporary art museum in the country. MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) anchors the North Adams Cultural District, attracting thousands of tourists, visiting artists, students, and residents to the city’s downtown. The world-class museum, which opened in 1999, offers a unique combination of temporary exhibitions, long-term installations, and curated performances including the internationally-known Solid Sound, Bang on a Can, and FreshGrass music festivals. MASS MoCA’s campus of beautifully-preserved mill buildings also house artist residency studio spaces, galleries including Ferrin Contemporary and CYNTHIA-REEVES, and creative businesses such as Storey Publishing, The Artist Book Foundation, and Bright Ideas Brewing.
Walking further into the district, it becomes clear that North Adams is home to much more cultural activity than MASS MoCA’s galleries contain. Colorful, engaging murals by both local and visiting artists from as far as Mexico and Egypt paint the route. Interactive public installations such as Victoria Palermo’s bus shelter and Kathline Carr’s parklet activate the sidewalks along Main Street. Much of this work is spearheaded by MCLA’s Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, a department of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, a distinguished liberal arts college based in North Adams. Not only does the college operate its own gallery in the heart of the district, it facilitates DownStreet Art, a summer-long cultural initiative that brings public art, performances, events, pop-up businesses, and family-friendly activities to the city’s downtown.
Thanks to North Adams’ draw as a multi-season recreational and cultural destination, summer is not the only time to experience special events in the district. The city hosts close to a dozen annual downtown events including WinterFest, Downtown Celebration, Motorama, Eagle Street Beach Party, and the Fall Foliage Festival and Parade which draws tens of thousands of visitors and residents to Main Street each October. Denoting the district’s eastern border is Colegrove Park, a restored outdoor gathering space and venue for free concerts, movie screenings, yoga, and other community events. MCLA’s Design Lab is a multi-use educational, exhibition, and performance space that is used year-round by many community arts groups including Sounds and Tones Records and Common Folk, a local artist collective.
North Adams’ Cultural District is distinct in its creative entrepreneurship infrastructure. The Makers’ Mill, a fiber and printmaking makerspace on Main Street, provides support to artists, both native and transient, looking to further their creative practice and cultivate creative community. Businesses such as outside gallery and Martha Flood Designs both found start-up support and storefront space in the district thanks to a creative business program managed by MCLA. And affordable studio and residential space available throughout the district helped land North Adams on Mic’s list of “15 Best Cities for Creative 20-Somethings Other Than New York.”
The dozens of nonprofit and independent businesses that saturate the district round out downtown North Adams’ cultural and commercial offerings. Restaurants and retail, from coffee shops and music stores to dog grooming and other services, can be found on every downtown street. The Berkshire Art Museum, North Adams Museum of History and Science, North Adams Public Library, and proposed Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum provide the district with additional layers of cultural, intellectual, and historic value.