While North Adams expected an increase in tourists as a result of the massive Mass MoCA project, no one planned to increase the number of artists. Despite being a small urban arts center and certainly not a major arts centre, in recent years the city has attracted dozens of artists who have found North Adams to be an economically viable but culturally stimulating alternative to expensive urban areas.
The Berkshire Museum of Art showcases these artists who have one common interest – to dine together on Thursday evenings at Meng’s Pan-Asian. There is no artistic style connecting this group. It’s an unusual excuse for an exhibition, but one that whets one’s appetite.
There are examples throughout art history of artists gathering in bars and cafés – Dadaists frequented the cafés of Zurich, Impressionists and Cubists in various cafés in Paris, and after World War II, Abstract Expressionism congregated in many bars in New York City. Usually, geography and time were the common denominators and not necessarily a common art style. Artists were often young and unpopular – or on the cusp of success.
By the time the “community eating” started in North Adams, we weren’t quite as young as the famous artists in Paris or New York. After a decade or two, most of us have drifted into the older category while older organ transplants have expanded our group. It’s common to find 25 to 35 artists – along with arts-interested spouses and friends – heading out for a meal and gossip.
In Washington, D.C., where I grew up, artists would meet often. After exhibitions opened, hungry artists often headed to Chinatown. Chinese restaurants were affordable and open late – you can order dinner after midnight. When Barbara and I moved to North Adams in 1990, there was no artist community until we started the Contemporary Artists Center (CAC) in the historic Beaver Mill which every summer hosts about 100 artists as well as museum/gallery directors from around the world. During the decade I was a director, CAC was the nucleus of the emerging art scene. Attending a CAC dinner was the way to meet fellow artists.
Although I continue to be addicted to Chinese food, the ethnic food was limited when we first arrived; There were only two Chinese options. A small restaurant on Eagle Street has agreed to provide Chinese vegetables that are not on their menu. When they later moved and had a sit-down restaurant, our friend Peter May used our weekly need for Chinese food to include our informal Spanish speaking group. As that group dissipated, diners were replaced by artists and other art-interested friends.
When the restaurant’s ownership changed hands, artist Wendy James suggested the group move to the Beijing/Sushi House on Main Street. Joy (co-owner with her husband, Chef Meng) assured us that she could provide the required Chinese dishes. It turns out that this change of place is incredibly common for artists.
Over the years, dinner nights have usually changed due to a conflict with group drawing nights – from Monday to Wednesday to Thursday. Today, we order separately rather than family style – especially since margaritas are the most popular beverage of choice and thus check quantities vary widely.
When Joy and Meng decided to close Sushi House and remodel Beijing but with a new name and appearance, we suggested using “Pan-Asian” in their name because it represented what they offered – the choice of Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese sushi and noodle dishes. As Meng is the main chef, he has become “Meng’s Pan-Asian”.
With the entrance retreating about 40 feet from the Main Street sidewalk, it was clear that the large alley wall needed art to lighten the path. Instead of paying to have new paintings made, the painting in my studio looked perfect. Since there were imperfections caused by the glue process, I was willing to take a chance and install it outside. I also loaned small, abstract art pieces to hold it inside. I thought the restaurant should not only reflect Asian cuisine, but also the fact that the largest museum of contemporary art in the United States is just a stone’s throw away, and that many visitors to Mass MoCA will patronize the restaurant.
I don’t know of any historical cases of older artists meeting in a particular place as far as we do. Perhaps this is one of the merits of creativity in North Adams and why the city has become a cemetery for artists; It is much easier to meet and socialize here than in a large metropolitan city.
The Berkshire Museum of Art gallery, The Chinese Thursday Dinner Group Artists, showcases a variety of artistic styles, which in turn reflect the diversity of personalities and interests in a group of artists who simply love to dine together on Thursday evenings.
This fair was planned for 2020 but postponed for two years due to Covid-19. The pandemic has also cut back on weekly dinners (the restaurant is currently service only) and for most of us, it’s one of those social gatherings that isn’t much missed.
Eric Rudd is a sculptor, mixed media artist and founding director of the Berkshire Museum of Art. The museum, located in the former First United Methodist Church, was founded by the Barbara and Eric Rudd Foundation for the Arts in 2012 and opened to the public in 2014.