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Joseph C. Thompson, the only director Mass MoCA has had, hopes to renovate more buildings and to create an outdoor space for a music festival. (Stephen Rose for The Boston Globe)

For years, there’s been a big secret in this run-down former factory town. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, praised for bringing life to the region, was barely surviving.

Mass MoCA organizers found themselves scrambling every year for more than $1 million just to keep the lights on.

“We had no cash,” says director Joseph C. Thompson, sitting in a museum conference room on a recent afternoon. “We nearly went out of business 100 times.”

Thompson can talk about the crunch now. For the first time in its history, Mass MoCA is close to breaking even without a desperate round of fund-raising. This month, the museum celebrated an important milestone. It has been 10 years since the largest contemporary art museum in the world opened on the shuttered campus of the former Sprague Electric Co.

In that time, more than a million people have passed through the brick-walled galleries to gaze at exhibits that, in many cases, could not have been seen anyplace else – from Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang’s series of nine cars suspended from the ceiling, rods of pulsating light exploding from them, to Sol LeWitt’s colorful, detailed wall drawings, spread over three floors in an unprecedented 25-year exhib it. What’s more, Thompson, the only leader in Mass MoCA’s history, has plans to renovate more of the factory buildings on the museum’s site and to create an outdoor concert space for a summertime music festival.

It’s a stunning turnaround for a museum that, at one point, seemed unlikely even to be built.

The idea for Mass MoCA emerged almost a quarter-century ago. Thomas Krens, then a professor and director of the Williams College Museum of Art and later responsible for the Guggenheim Foundation’s massive museum growth worldwide, remembers exactly when the idea came to him: Nov. 15, 1985.

He had gone to see an exhibition space in Cologne, Germany. A couple of enterprising dealers staged a show by Austrian artist Marcus Lupertz in an old factory building. They didn’t bother cleaning up the space or changing a thing before installing the art. They just put up lights.

Krens thought of North Adams, just up the road from his museum in Williamstown. Unemployment was running high in North Adams, particularly with the Sprague plant closing. At one time more than 4,000 people had worked there. Krens pitched the idea for a contemporary-art museum to city leaders and brought two proteges in to work with him on the project: a former student, Joe Thompson, and a current student, Michael Govan.

The locals liked the concept, and Governor Michael Dukakis supported the plan. In 1988, the Legislature agreed to provide $35 million to renovate the site – providing Mass MoCA raised $15 million on its own. That same year, Krens left for the top job at the Guggenheim Foundation. He offered Thompson the deputy director job at the Guggenheim. Thompson declined, telling Krens he wanted to stay in North Adams. (Govan got the Guggenheim job.)

“If Joe hadn’t stayed,” Krens said in a recent interview, “Mass MoCA wouldn’t have happened.”

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Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

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