Mohawk & MoCA

X-RR is about the proposed model train museum, yes, but it’s also about the whole “cultural corridor” concept, the idea of developing attractions in North Adams to balance off the wealth of established institutions in Williamstown — with Williams College, Clark Art Institute, Williams Theater Festival, and others — to brand the North Berkshire Route 2 corridor as an exciting overnight destination for cultural tourists, and ultimately a value-seeking home for a variety of hip young creative types, reversing population loss and economic decline.

MassMoCA has definitely changed the profile of North Adams over the past twenty years, but has not proved to be a panacea for the city’s economic woes.  It does provide, however, both foundation and direction for future development. Meanwhile, the Mohawk Theater, so central to Main Street, has been the focus for successive development efforts over the past several decades, without ever finding a viable path to revival.

I have been lucky to be present at tours of both these facilities in the past week, and I’m here to tell you that big things are afoot in the Tunnel City.

Experience with cultural and economic development around the world has led Tom Krens to know what it takes to achieve a truly transformative enhancement of the urban environment, so he realizes that for the model train museum to truly succeed in North Adams, the whole city will need to take on a new sense of itself.  So in a public spirit, he has become a leading figure in plans for the Mohawk Theater, and convened a meeting last week to see what could be achieved with multiple inputs from the cultural community.

Besides Mayor Richard Alcombright and other city officials, now in control of the property, at the meeting were representatives of programming institutions such as MCLA, WTF, Berkshire International Film Festival, Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, and if you can include my role as film programmer, tangentially the Clark.

Tom, acting as prompt but not principal to the project, asked the compelling question about long-stalled efforts to develop the Mohawk, “If not now, when?”  After decades of proposals that petered out, when will another moment arrive with so many prospective efforts coming together to change the economic climate and cultural cachet of North Adams?

So he challenged the group to organize, and come up with programs of events that in sum could sustain a year-round performance and screening space in the heart of downtown.  A tour of the facility left everyone present with a sense of the possibilities.  There is an undated website from the last major campaign for the Mohawk’s revival that gives a sense of the status quo, and of the potential, given a concerted effort by existing cultural institutions.

A few days later, Joe Thompson, director of MassMoCA since its founding, was kind enough to give a group of prospective train museum enthusiasts a hardhat tour of the construction site for the vast expansion of the museum now underway, and the ways it will connect to Heritage Park and other attractions.

A hundred and twenty thousand square feet is just a number, just a phrase, until you step into the space.  Joe led us through Building 6 of the old Sprague factory, site of most of the expansion in progress,  wowing everyone with the dimensions of the interior, and moreover the vision of what it will contain when it opens next year.  What I most look forward to is the long-term James Turrell exhibit, but the other featured artists will certainly attract a wide range of viewers – Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson.  The expansion will double the size and likely double the visitors to what will become one of the largest museums in America.

For pictures and more information, I direct you to an extensive article in the Albany Times-Unionwhich is unrealistically critical of space-rich but financially-limited MassMoCA, for failing to solve all of the factory town ills of North Adams, but otherwise sets the stage for further developments.

This is a story that will unfold in tandem with EMRCA and GCAM, Tom’s plan for another contemporary art space, along Route 2 near the airport, an unmissable stop right in the middle of the “cultural corridor.”  X-RR will attempt to stay current with each of these prospective projects.


Welcome to X-RR!

This site aims to follow exciting developments in North Adam, Massachusetts, which promise to turn a decaying factory town into a vibrant cultural hub in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth.  Big plans are afoot, springing from the museum-minded imagination of former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens.

The author of this blog is Steve Satullo, a lifelong friend of Tom’s, who will be tagging along, following his North Adams ventures as they unfold, not just the proposed model train museum in Heritage Park, but a contemporary art showcase near the airport, and the revival of the Mohawk Theater on Main Street.  Also underway is a transformative expansion of MassMoCA, under Joe Thompson’s longtime leadership, but fulfilling the promise of Tom’s originating concept.

Mayor Alcombright and other city officials, along with the North Adams Partnership and a wide array of stakeholders, have embraced efforts to realize the comprehesive vision for cultural and economic development outlined in the Concept Development Study of February 2016.  (Click on link to see entire 384-page full-color document, but please allow time for large pdf.file to load.  I’ll soon post here “The X-RR Guide to the CDS”  highlighting some salient aspects of the study.)

I hope this blog will offer not just a personal perspective on unfolding events, but a forum for community discussion about this vision for the future of North Adams, so please feel free to use the Comments function of the site, or to contact me directly at:


Tom Krens certainly intends for his model train museum to be incomparable, but it makes sense to compare his plan with some other sites that usually appear on lists of the best model train displays in the world.  Tom’s favorite example is the Minatur Wunderland  in Hamburg, Germany, which draws more than a million visitors a year — you can get a five-minute taste of that attraction here.

Another candidate for the title of “world’s largest model railroad” is closer to the Berkshires — here is a similarly brief introduction to Northlandz in Flemington NJ, from the PBS series Tracks Ahead.  (Since I posted this, there’s been another good two-minute introduction on YouTube.)   

I was able to make a personal visit to Northlandz recently — click through to view an illustrated tour, with my observations on how Tom’s project will far outdo that attraction , manifesting the creative difference between obsessive hobbyist and experienced museum director.

Continue reading “Comparables”