Instructions for Making a White Box Gallery


When I joined MASS MoCA I had an idea I’d be involved in projects of great scale; the museum has an interesting penchant for being the genesis for many of the artworks shown in its galleries. It’s a non-collecting institution, focused primarily on providing a platform for emerging artists and performers, constantly reaching to the limits of its abilities and housed in a massive city industrial mill complex. Tack on a few sleepless nights and you have a pretty aggressively dynamic environment.

Some would say that the MASS MoCA concept short-circuits the traditional role of the museum. However, I haven’t had much time to ponder such things since working here. Frankly, having a “little spark” to life keeps things interesting. Wild, forward-thinking projects, undertaken with teams of extremely dedicated and talented individuals on shoestring budgets… feels like a front-row seat in the trenches of our ever-evolving culture war… albeit in the middle of the “woods”. But the museum has grown and matured over the past 14 years. Things are changing as we move into our teens. Retaining its youthful vitality, it’s an institution working with more and more creative people while also developing a little more depth at its core. MASS MoCA is becoming more and more a “think tank” for the arts, and what a contemporary art museum can be if it’s open to collaboration.

So, when someone came up with the idea of taking an 10,000 square foot, concrete water tank, used to filter sediment from the untamed waters of the Hoosic River, and turning it into an exhibition space… I thought… well, that’s a good idea!

But hold on… how about a little back story, you say?

There once was a sculpture that lived in the front yard of an interesting husband and wife who were fearless collectors:

It was a striking contemporary sculpture by an artist recognized by the nation of France as an official National Treasure (as he was German, one would have to assume that the French thought he was a good artist).


Oddly enough, the sculpture was misunderstood (a recurring theme in history), and neighbors of this interesting pair of collectors thought the sculpture to be an abomination; indeed they disliked the sculpture to such a great extent that they made the couple remove the sculpture from their yard by act of law on the pretext of historical preservation, or building code, or some other made-up reason.

Dismayed by the turn of events, and weary of the fight with neighbors, the couple (Andy and Christine Hall) called Joe Thompson at MASS MoCA to see if the museum might be interested in showing the sculpture; MASS MoCA was indeed very interested! And so in 2007 there was a fabulous exhibition of the Anselm Keifer sculpture Étroits sont les Vaisseaux, 2002, accompanied by several of the artist’s magnificent paintings, also generously lent from the Halls.

It was a great success, drawing interest and patrons from far and wide. It was such a positive experience, in fact, that in the wake of our recent experience with the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Retrospective (a 25-year temporary exhibition) the thought of creating a more lasting representation of the Anselm Kiefer works of The Hall Collection at MASS MoCA took root. And the search for a space was on…


After several feasibility studies of potential spaces, interest eventually focused upon the defunct water tank located at the southern extreme of the campus. The Hall Art Foundation’s Alex Haviland, who helps oversee the Halls’ collection, became convinced that this daunting structure could be converted.

The water tank once stood embedded in a five-story building but was left exposed after the exterior structure was raised. As Joe put it, “We saved it, not quite knowing what it might one day be used for, but sensing that the beautifully austere structure would one day find a new purpose.” Our structural engineer believed that the tank was likely cast within the building in the early 1920’s, the concrete and hand-laid stone foundation carted in wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. He dated the concrete casting from the horizontal board marks still evident in the tank. These forms were assembled from lumber, predating the invention of plywood.


One of the issues was the elaborate structure which keeps the 20-inch thick tank walls from bursting outward when filled with water. This veritable maze of interior walls, columns, and purlins would need to be removed to make way for the exhibition. In order to do this, a massive concrete cutting claw was brought in to chew the concrete in to pieces that could be trucked away.


The claw could grasp and crush while at the same time have a jackhammer-like ability that would pulverize the water-cured concrete to a powder, exposing the steel rebar which would then be burned away with torches. It was a labor-intensive, and machine-intensive, process.


Once essentially eviscerated of the interior walls, ramps, purlins, and other non-essential architecture, and the entrances cut, the interior floor was poured. As the previous use was a water tank, the floor had an exceptionally steep pitch from one end to the other for drainage. The entire building was loaded with flow-able fill, and then a concrete floor (dyed to match the walls) was poured in the building. Above you can see the insulating curing blankets used to protect the floor from cold-weather conditions. Another interesting aspect of the project is that the sculpture, Étroits sont les Vaisseaux, 2002, was dropped into the shell of the tank and covered with a protective platform, and then the building’s upper walls and roof were installed around it…solving the ship-in-the bottle problem and making for more efficient craning.


After the concrete is poured, the steel structure of the pre-engineered building was installed.


The purlins.


The insulation and exterior panels.

This space is much more pristine, white, and classical in feeling than MASS MoCA’s typically warm masonry and wood-framed galleries. And while MASS MoCA is rather well-known for its beautifully side-lit galleries, this one will feature an amazing skylight, which is a first for MASS MoCA. It should make for an interesting and refreshing juxtaposition. We rather like the idea of MASS MoCA becoming a museum and performing arts space that also houses a collection of distinct curatorial points of view and long-term art “milestones” within our roster of changing exhibitions: LeWitt, Kiefer, and the Clark. The design of the building was worked out collaboratively between the Hall Art Foundation, which funded most of the work; the artist; his installation designer, Bill Katz; and local architects from the multidisciplinary design consulting firm, Guntlow & Associates, Inc. There will also be quite a bit of exterior landscape work done, opening up our “Speed Way” for future outdoor sculptural installations.

And now for the installation of artwork inside the building … you’ll have to come visit beginning September 27th. Stay tuned.

Blog by Dante Birch, Director of Exhibition Planning

Posted August 30, 2013 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Uncategorized

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2 Comments on “Instructions for Making a White Box Gallery”

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