Some people think that big money is all a community needs to grow and prosper. Unfortunately, big money without good ideas serves to enrich only those who already have big money. When you have good ideas first, big money follows them. When North Adams began to experience the decline of its industrial economy and the slow disappearance of much of its retail businesses, there were no good ideas around. It was the same old mantra: “Tear it down and build a shopping center.” “Bring in more industry.” “Build a highway.” What North Adams got was urban renewal (parts one and two), Kmart, the L-Shaped Mall, and more layoffs.
So where do good ideas come from? They often come from new people, especially if those people are artists. When artists come to town, they bring a sense of “anything is possible.” They look around with their imaginative eyes and see things in ways no one else has thought of before. Because artists are dreamers, they are immune to those negative voices: “It’s not practical.” “No one will support it.” “Where will the money come from?” “It’s never been done before.”
Eric Buddington, a young, bright, college-educated violin player, rode into North Adams on his bike several years ago and liked what he saw. He stayed, and now he contributes to his adopted community in ways that are sometimes hard to measure. His music graces Main Street on Friday mornings at the Bean and at Acoustic Night at Papyri Books. He creates useful software technology all by himself. He volunteers his time to various agencies and causes. Most of all, he brings optimism and new ideas to this community. In a recent interview, Eric told me:
“I think the biggest thing is ideas; not just having them, but trying things, experimenting, talking to people. If I try things, I can get other people excited. Maybe not about the same things, but there’s a lot of cross-pollination that can happen. You can have a group of a few dozen people who are all experimenting in a particular area, like in my case, gardening or computer software. If someone is interested in starting up a new business, that’s another thing. If we have people who want to become freelance teachers, creative people, people who are thinking on their own; that’s the most important thing. The things we do in our spare time are probably going to make more of a difference in the long run than the things we do professionally.”
And then there is the other Eric. I am talking about Eric Rudd. He and his wife Barbara moved to North Adams 10 years ago and founded the Contemporary Artists Center at the Beaver Mill. In a recent interview, he told me:
“Artists need space, they need materials, they need stimulation, and they need a place that’s enriching and is supportive of their work. North Adams has all those ingredients. You can’t find any place else like it. You can find a cheap place to live in the country, but you’ll be isolated. You’re not isolated here. There is this critical mass of Williams College Museum of Art, the Clark Art Institute, and Mass MoCA.”
“Another important part of that critical mass is our Contemporary Artists Center, because we really connect more with artists. If Mass MoCA had opened without the CAC ever existing, people wouldn’t have understood it. We’ve had 10 years of exposing the community to art not only here at the Beaver Mill, but we bring it out in the streets with various things like downtown installations. We’ve educated and prepared this town for Mass MoCA.”
“North Adams has achieved step number one, which is that Mass MoCA was built and established worldwide. Step two is this dream I have, which I think will happen. I think there’s a chance to make history here. The idea of alternative spaces for art started in the late sixties and early seventies. Alternative spaces were starting up, because museums were locking out contemporary artists. Alternative spaces have dried up now. They’ve either become the establishment, or traditional museums have started getting more adventuresome. I think North Adams is a natural testing ground for new kinds of art. Young artists will need space that’s not expensive. That kind of space still exists in North Adams.”
“Equally exciting are the Internet companies coming here. The great art of the future may use some stone, but it may not be “carved” stone. If you can accept that idea, then it’s not a big leap to say that it’s going to use multi-media apparatus.”
“I came up to North Adams to do projects I couldn’t find space for in Washington, and they were multi-media projects. In those days, Mass MoCA was going to be a minimalist art museum, bigger than anywhere else, but traditionally the same. It was only several years ago that it developed into this multi-media complex. What’s happening here is a marriage of art and technology. This is the most exciting place in the world right now. I think people here are finally beginning to understand that.”
Last week I was in North Adams for Rudd’s Eagle Street Beach Party. For those who no longer live in the area and remember Eagle Street, I’m not putting you on. With the help of the city, Eric dropped tons and tons of sand on Eagle Street so that a few hundred children could play and make sand castles for three hours, while their parents looked on with cameras.
It was a perfect afternoon: sunny, clear blue skies, dry air. The sand trucks came around 3:30. Rudd and a few volunteers spread the sand around with shovels. Cops stood at both ends of the street and waved off traffic. Kids, sometimes with their parents’ help, built castles or dug holes to crawl into, and in one case made an alligator with its mouth open. Eric walked around with a garden hose and sprayed water into plastic pools and little brightly colored buckets. Molly’s Bakery sold tons of fried dough and whoopie pies.
Later the award for the best sand sculpture was announced. It was the alligator, designed by A.J. Bona and his father Keith. When it was all over, the trucks returned to pick up the sand. I got a sandwich and watched. Several of the cops tried to show off by attempting to ride their bikes on the sand.
Thanks to an artist with an imagination, people were given a chance to have fun downtown at little or no cost, and to get together with their friends and celebrate a beautiful and unique street steeped in history and blessed with tremendous potential.
Again, Eric Rudd:
“A while ago, I did this 3,000 pound cube sculpture across the street from the mill. The North Adams Transcript did a photo essay about it. So then my friend Peter May goes to the barbershop to get his haircut, and the barber has no idea that Peter knows me.”
“The barber says, ‘Did you see that pile of junk by the Beaver Mill?’ Peter says, ‘It’s not junk, it’s art. It’s a sculpture.’ They start talking about it. Peter asks him, ‘Do you ever get customers that want those crazy haircuts?’ So they wind up discussing whether or not those kinds of haircuts are a form of art. Peter says, ‘Did you ever think there would be a day when I would come into a barbershop in North Adams, and instead of talking about politics or sports, we’re talking about the aesthetics of art?’”