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MASS MoCA’s Founding Director to Step Down


Joseph C. Thompson, who became the founding director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 1988, will step down from that post near the end of October, the institution announced on Friday.

Mr. Thompson spent his first 11 years as director working to open the museum in an industrial complex of brick buildings that had formerly been home to a textile mill and an electronics plant. Most recently he has helped the museum, in North Adams, weather the coronavirus pandemic even as it laid off 120 of its 165 employees.

In between, MASS MoCA, as it is often called, became the largest institution in the United States devoted to new art, with 550,000 square feet of space in 17 buildings. In addition to displaying visual art, the museum’s programming has included music, dance, theater, film and artist-in-residency workshops.

“After more than three decades as director, it is high time for me to step away from day-to-day management of the museum,” Mr. Thompson said in a statement. “The capacities of this wonderful place, and the great people who work here, are unlimited, and the next director will have endless opportunities to advance MASS MoCA’s mission.”

Timur Galen, chair of the MASS MoCA Foundation board of trustees, said the museum was grateful to Mr. Thompson, adding: “His dedication, innovation and leadership have made MASS MoCA a premier site for the creation and enjoyment of contemporary art, in all forms.”

Museum officials said Mr. Thompson’s decision to step down was not related to the fact that he is facing a vehicular homicide case. That case stems from a collision in 2018 with a motorcyclist, who was killed. Mr. Thompson has pleaded not guilty.

Starting at the end of October Mr. Thompson will spend a year as special counsel to the board of trustees, the museum said, focusing on fund-raising and special projects. Tracy Moore, the museum’s deputy director and chief operating officer, will serve as interim director while the trustees search for a permanent director.

The idea for MASS MoCA originated in 1986 when Thomas Krens, then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art, imagined opening an art space in one of the region’s old industrial complexes. With the backing of Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts legislature approved a $35 million grant for the project. Soon afterward Mr. Krens became director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan and Mr. Thompson, who had also worked at the Williams College museum, was named director of MASS MoCA before it was even open.

Mr. Thompson secured funding from the state, though Mr. Dukakis’s successor, William Weld, expressed reservations about the project. Sometimes working without a salary and with minimal staff, Mr. Thompson also raised money from private sources. To some people, it seemed as if the museum might never open, but it did in 1999, with installers rushing to hang Robert Rauschenberg’s immense “The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece” in a gallery nearly the size of a football field.

“The museum, more than 10 years in the making, has a home so plainly beautiful it barely needs art,” the critic Roberta Smith wrote in The Times.

Since then the museum has exhibited works by Sol LeWitt, Laurie Anderson, Jenny Holzer, Anselm Kiefer and James Turrell. The museum has also featured a residency program that has included new projects and experimental works-in-progress by Bill T. Jones, William Kentridge, David Byrne, Urban Bush Women and Paola Prestini.

In addition, the museum hosts concerts and music festivals. Mr. Thompson co-founded the annual Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA, the museum said. The museum added that he also co-produced Solid Sound, Wilco’s music and arts festival, which is held there, and Freshgrass, an annual festival of American roots and alt-folk music.

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