The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known for daring installations that can stretch as long as a football field, will announce Monday a group of long-term projects with some of the country’s most prominent living artists, including Laurie Anderson, James Turrell and Jenny Holzer, as well as a partnership with the foundation of the late post-abstract expressionist Robert Rauschenberg.
When the roughly $55 million project is completed in 2017, Mass MoCA will be the largest contemporary art museum in the country, with more than 250,000 square feet of gallery space. It will also be one of the most eclectic, with a campus that features everything from rock and bluegrass festivals to dance premieres and a 27,000-square-foot building devoted to the drawings of conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.
“It’s my idea of museum nirvana,” Joseph C. Thompson, director of Mass MoCA, said about adding the projects to the museum’s existing space. “We have a set core of collections around which our changing programs and performances can spin like electrons.”
The renovation of an expanse of Mass MoCA’s 19th-century mill buildings, to be announced Monday in North Adams with Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D), will include a long-term installation of marble works by the late French sculptor Louise Bourgeois and a collaboration with contemporary classical players Bang on a Can.
The participants said they are amazed that Thompson is pulling off the project.
“I thought, ‘This is wildly ambitious,’ so when he called, literally, my jaw dropped,” said Anderson, who is known for “O Superman,” her 1981 hit song, as well as decades of experimental art.
“Radio Anderson,” the working title of her project for Mass MoCA, will include a functional recording studio and archives for the material — from homemade instruments to drawings — that she has packed away or perhaps records on campus. Anderson also plans to do radio broadcasts from the space.
Anderson, who is based in New York, has been a frequent collaborator at Mass MoCA. Northwestern Massachusetts is affordable, allowing her to bring a crew; the local bed and breakfast, Porches Inn, lets her stay with her border terrier, Little Will.
Then there is Building 6, in which “Radio Anderson” will be built. “Just to get a space like that,” she said. “What it means is you can work to scale. You don’t have to wonder.”
Turrell, famous for works — indoors and outdoors — centered on light, will install nine pieces on the campus, including an outdoor observatory on a water tower. One of the installations will create a “Ganzfeld” effect, a loss of perception produced by controlled exposure to light.
In an interview, Turrell said he was particularly impressed by Mass MoCA’s LeWitt project, a collaboration with the Yale University Art Gallery and the Williams College Museum of Art in 2008. “That was amazing and very beautiful,” he said. “If they’re able to do something like that, to give over that kind of space, I’m the guy.”
Holzer’s work will include light-projected pieces, a smartphone app and carved stone benches.
Since opening in 1999 on the campus of the now-defunct Sprague Electric Co., Mass MoCA, located about three hours west of Boston and three hours north of New York City, has expanded to include music festivals — including Solid Sound, curated by the rock band Wilco — as well as a variety of dance, film and art exhibitions. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang hung nine cars, in different angles as they tumbled forward, from the ceiling of one gallery. That piece now hangs at the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum. Darren Waterston’s fascinating spin on artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s work, on view at Mass MoCA, will be shown in May at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
And it was Rauschenberg’s “The 1 / 4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece” that opened the museum in 1999. That piece and others will be returning as part of the collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. But this project will feature more than art. The collaboration will allow scholars, nearby Williams College and curators at the Clark Art Institute in neighboring Williamstown to work with Mass MoCA on Rauschenberg projects. And artists at the foundation’s 20-acre campus in Captiva, Fla., will bring projects to North Adams.
All of the projects are partnerships with long-term leases ranging from 15 to 25 years, as Mass MoCA does not have a permanent collection. Through these arrangements, the institution can share costs with others and allow future generations a chance to make changes.
But the leases are renewable, Thompson said.
“I’ll eat my hat if this doesn’t still look fresh and beautiful 20 years from now,” he said.
Mass MoCA has raised $13.5 million of $30 million in private contributions it needs for the upcoming expansion, on top of an additional $25.4 million that the state provided to the museum.
Those numbers impressed Christy MacLear, executive director of the Rauschenberg Foundation. So did the idea of finding a public outlet for the programs and projects developed on the foundation’s campus in Florida. There are few institutions that can show Rauschenberg’s largest works.
“It’s a gem, and it’s a pilgrimage site,” MacLear said of Mass MoCA. “This is about how you can see some of Bob’s biggest works, how you can see some of the newest ideas about Bob and how you can see what other artists are coming out with.”
When Thompson first pitched the idea of a partnership to MacLear, she called Jock Reynolds, Yale University Art Gallery director, who had worked on the LeWitt project. He told her that he had been thrilled by the experience. He also was impressed by Thompson’s ability to build an institution from scratch.
“After having first taken that state money and Joe managing to open it, against every odd in the world, they’ve proven themselves to be an incredibly viable institution,” Reynolds said. “I don’t know of any other contemporary museum that’s got the chutzpah, the space and the go-for-broke attitude they’ve shown.”