A Talk With: Joe Thompson

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Sol LeWitt at MASS MoCA/Photos: Lacayo

When I was up at MASS MoCA a few weeks ago to see their new installation of 105 Sol LeWitt wall drawings, I had a talk with MASS MoCA’s director Joe Thompson about how the project took shape. Thompson and his museum were brought into it by Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery. It was Reynolds who first proposed the idea to LeWitt, around the time LeWitt was diagnosed with the cancer that would lead to his death last year.

As usual I’ll break this conversation into a couple of parts

LACAYO: Sol and Jock started to talk about doing something like this about five years ago?

THOMPSON: It was about 2003. Their relationship stemmed from the beautiful LeWitt survey that Jock had organized at the Addison Gallery at Phillips Andover in 1993, when he was director there. They began by talking just about the conservation of Sol’s work, a set of standards that would allow his work to be made after his death — things like color standardization, when works can be re-scaled and when they can’t. Sol also had an archive of historical materials that he wanted taken care of.

But they also began talking about doing a significant installation. Jock said there was no way Yale would have the space to do it. He asked Sol if he’d be interested in making it a three way collaboration with Williams College and MASS MoCA. We already had a history of doing big installations and working with artists. I think Jock described me as a poor dirt farmer of a museum director — cash poor but rich in land and buildings. And it’s true, our assets are space and time.


LACAYO: So did Sol choose which building he wanted?

THOMPSON: He and his wife Carol came up in 2004. We spent the better part of four or five hours walking around the entire site. And then we had a lunch and Sol very definitively said Building Seven would work. I said, which part? And he said: “Its entirety.” I loved the idea. I was really enthusiastic, but I had no clue how we were gonna pull it off. MASS MoCA back then, we were still just hanging on. We’d just been open for three or four years and had no endowment, no cash in the bank.


LACAYO: Just how many buildings do you have here?

THOMPSON: Seventeen or eighteen — it depends on what you call a building. We have eight that we fill now, including the one Sol is in. That’s about 150,000 sq. ft. of space. We have a performing arts program, which takes up an equal amount of our band width and resources. And then we have a commercial real estate enterprise, 120,000 sq. ft. that we rent to 16 businesses. That’s how we hold house and home together.

LACAYO: So what’s your annual attendance now?

THOMPSON: In total it’s about 120,000 — about 100,000 to the galleries and 20,000 to our performing arts events.

LACAYO: Will you charge a separate admission for the LeWitt galleries?

THOMPSON: No, we’re gonna raise our prices modestly when the LeWitt opens. But you’ll come to MASS MoCA and visit the LeWitt at the same time. Right now admission is $12.50 and it will be going to $15.