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MASS MoCA Keeps It Fresh With Festivals…Bluegrass and Otherwise

Fans gather at the 2013 FreshGrass festival. Photo: Danielle Poulin

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

MASS MoCA has been home to all manner of boundary-breaking contemporary art over its 15 years. If you’ve got a hankering to see some upside-down trees suspended in the air, this is your place.

So it came as no surprise when the institution announced it was converting another old factory building into a gallery dedicated to the large-scale work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, including a sculpture made from undulating waves of jagged concrete.

But a bluegrass festival? That was a bit of a surprise when FreshGrass debuted in September of 2011. Yet the growing success of the event, in tandem with the much higher-profile Wilco bonanza known as the Solid Sound Festival, is living proof that this museum has become a first-class performance venue. And its specialty is exceedingly well-run festivals.

Joe Thompson has led MASS MoCA toward a new specialty — exceedingly well-run music festivals. Photo: Olympia Shannon

“We’re interested in new ideas and the formation of culture today,” the museum’s founding director, Joe Thompson, says. “We just think American roots music and bluegrass is going through a really interesting and lively and idea-filled moment right now, and that’s very much what MASS MoCA is about.”

This year’s FreshGrass festival runs Friday evening through Sunday, featuring headliners Emmylou Harris, The Infamous Stringdusters, David Grisman Sextet, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Sam Bush and the duo of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. (Talent in previous years has included lots of other big names in the field, like Yonder Mountain String Band, Del McCoury Band, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Trampled By Turtles and The Devil Makes Three.)

FreshGrass is no boutique event. It has quickly earned a place as a major bluegrass and roots-music festival in the region. This reckoning is based on the names it draws as well as its burgeoning popularity. The first year, the event — conceived in July and hurriedly executed just two months later — sold a disappointing 400 tickets. The next year, that number jumped to 1,600. In 2013 the attendance total shot up again, to 4,000.

“Because it’s made a little bit of a splash in that world, there’s a lot of enthusiasm from artists and their agents and managers,” says Ollie Chanoff, an associate curator for performing arts at MoCA. “Whereas we were hustling to book acts the first couple years, now we have a lot of people contacting us and asking to be on the festival.”

An unidentified band plays a pop-up set in one of the MASS MoCA galleries during the FreshGrass festival. Photo: Bill Wright

This museum has long had a sharp eye for forward-thinking live music. It’s the longtime host of the Bang on a Can music institute and festival, and has hosted concerts by Beck, Kim Gordon’s new project Body/Head, Marc Ribot, Jeff Mangum and Talib Kweli, to name some examples from just the last few years.

But the story of MASS MoCA’s burgeoning sideline in big festivals starts with Wilco. When that Chicago-based band created its first-ever festival around the MoCA facility in 2009, the museum folks got their first taste of five thousand people walking around the grounds at once. Thompson says he was initially concerned about the “beer at the threshold” issue — how to encourage a boisterous, hands-on attitude outside at the performances and vending areas, but still enforce proper museum etiquette inside the galleries.

As for those beers (and waters and iced coffees), concert-goers placed them on tables set up outside the main gallery entrance. But moreover, Thompson says, Wilco’s audience — and later, the FreshGrass crowd — proved to be model candidates for recruitment into the world of contemporary art.

“The audience is just a spectacular audience to have in a museum. They were not only engaged and intensely inquisitive and curious but they were also deeply respectful of the art as well as the music,” Thompson says. “Every museum sits around thinking about how to attract an ever-widening and ever-more-diverse audience. It’s easy to talk about, it’s hard to do. Having six or seven or eight thousand people a day come in to your galleries, people who may not have spent a lot of time in front of contemporary art before — that warms a museum director’s heart.”

The music is hot, but the vibe is casual. Photo: Danielle Poulin

Of course, MoCA has done more than just pull off the three Solid Sound and four FreshGrass festivals. Each one received conspicuously positive audience reviews, and with good reason. As the headline to one review in Metroland described it, they were each “a civilized affair.” From the free water to ample wi-fi to a range of reasonably priced, tasty food and drink options sold by locally based vendors, music festivals at MASS MoCA have been very fan-friendly. This is accomplished with help from a veritable army of volunteers, as well as support from Wilco’s Easthampton-based management team and FreshGrass producing partner Manitou Media, now known as Freshgrass, LLC.

Thompson says he expects an attendance this weekend of 5,000 to 5,500 festival-goers. With three years’ distance, and lots of intervening success, Thompson aptly sees the first year of FreshGrass as an investment in something bigger.

“Even though it was a financial black hole,” he says, “the quality was great. The musicians were coming up to our staff and our board and saying, ‘We know this must be tough financially, but please do it again. We know there’s an audience out there.’ That turned out to be true.”

FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival at MASS MoCA
Friday, September 19—Sunday, September 21
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA
(413) 662-2111

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 09/15/14 at 03:19 PM • Permalink