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New MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) welcomes visitors

Open to the public for free, year round

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

New MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) welcomes visitors
View of “Valkyrie Mumbet” (2020) by Joana Vasconcelos, on view through Aug. 2 at the MassArt Art Museum. PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Sometimes the best things in life are free. Take the new museum of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), which opened to the public on Feb. 22 and will remain open to the public for free, year round, with exhibitions and programs that fulfill its stated mission: “To open eyes, expand minds, and create opportunity through the lens of contemporary art.”

Based on its thrilling opening exhibitions and a roster of inviting programs, the MassArt Art Museum (MAAM), is more than up to its ambitious goal. Located at 621 Huntington Ave. within the MassArt campus, the museum is entirely accessible and welcoming to visitors with strollers and wheelchairs. MAAM even adds an artistic touch to its bathrooms, where mirrors bordered with word art are conducive to selfies. In addition to galleries, the museum has an education studio for events such as weekly drawing workshops on Thursday evenings and sessions for school groups.

“Game Changers,” on view through April 19 at the MassArt Art Museum. PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

“Game Changers,” on view through April 19 at the MassArt Art Museum. PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Founded in 1873, MassArt is the nation’s first publicly funded art school, and with MAAM, MassArt gains a contemporary art venue that will serve the community both within and surrounding the school. A non-collecting museum designed ground-up to display works of all sizes, by MassArt faculty and students as well as artists from throughout the world, MAAM is mainly staffed by students. “Our shows will draw from the wide variety of disciplines taught at MassArt,” says MAAM Executive Director Lisa Tung, who first envisioned the museum when she arrived at MassArt 10 years ago and led its development. “And as we prepare students for careers in the arts, education and design, we will hire, train and pay them as MAAM staff.”

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The welcome begins before a visitor enters, with the museum’s small plaza facing Huntington Avenue that has benches and outdoor art on display. Inside, the lobby itself is a work of art. On view through Feb. 28, 2021 is a wall-covering installation entitled “Yesterday is Here” (2019) by the artist collective Ghost of a Dream, Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom. The duo collected three decades of exhibition catalogs and announcements from the college’s previous display space, the MassArt Bakalar & Paine Galleries, cut them up and spliced the pieces together into interlocking mosaics that bring the space’s past into its present. 

The lobby opens onto two first-floor galleries where, through April 19, a group show entitled “Game Changers: Video Games & Contemporary Art” is on view. Animations and computer-generated images explore the crossover between artmaking and game design. Among the works not to be overlooked is a woven piece entitled “Intergalactic Empowerment Wampum Belt” that Canadian artist Skawennati, of Mohawk heritage, includes along with her machinima (movies that remix old game imagery).

A sun-splashed staircase leads to the upstairs gallery, home until Aug. 2 of the sensational “Valkyrie Mumbet” (2020), a giant inflated sculpture by renowned Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. With this monumental, site-specific installation, her first solo exhibition in the United States, the artist pays homage to Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman (c. 1724-1829), an enslaved woman in Sheffield, Massachusetts, who in 1781 gained her freedom through a successful court battle that helped make slavery illegal in this state. “Valkyrie Mumbet” is the latest of the artist’s ongoing series of Valkyries, named after Norse female war goddesses, which honor inspiring women.

As a visitor ascends the staircase, a giant limb of brilliantly colored quilted fabric is visible overhead, a prelude to the stunning experience of seeing the entirety of the sculpture in full splendor, suspended from the gallery’s 37-foot ceiling and also visible from a balcony.

Wall texts tell the story of Freeman, who attended a public reading of the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution. Moved by its statement that “all men are born free and equal,” she found herself a top lawyer and won her freedom.

“Valkyrie Mumbet” is an exuberant celebration of freedom. With its vibrant embroidered and crocheted fabrics, it is also a tribute to woman’s work and to the complex, freighted history of patterned cloths from Africa, an intertwined story of cross-continental cultural exchange and the slave trade. These connections will be explored on April 1 at 6 p.m. with a conversation at MassArt’s Pozen Center between M. Amah Edoh, an MIT professor of anthropology and African studies, and Mozambican clothing designer Wacy Zacarias.

Meanwhile, the fine wall texts of the Vasconcelos installation let Freeman speak for herself: “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it — just to stand one minute on God’s airth[sic] a free woman — I would.”

If you go

WHAT: MassArt Art Museum (MAAM)

WHERE: 621 Huntington Ave., Boston

WHEN: Open Wednesday through Sunday