Film

How MASS MoCA Transformed a Struggling Mill Town Into an Art Hub

Worlds collide in a new Meryl Streep-narrated documentary that traces the evolution of Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. 

Aerial view of Building 6 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) (image courtesy MASS MoCA)

Editor’s Note: After the publication of this review, it has been brought to our attention that the director of the MASS MoCA documentary is also a former employee of the museum, a fact that was not made clear in the publicity materials or during its screening at the SXSW film festival. We contacted the writer for clarification on the matter and received the following response:

Museum Town was directed by Jennifer Trainer Thompson, a former MASS MoCA director of development and the former spouse of current MASS MoCA director, Joe Thompson. The film itself makes no reference to this conflict of interest, and publicity for the film treats this fact disingenuously by referring to Thompson as simply ‘writer and journalist’ Jennifer Trainer in both her South by Southwest director bio and in her official festival interview. Promotional materials and publicity have altogether failed to acknowledge this pertinent detail.”

We apologize for the oversight. 

AUSTIN — The picturesque mill town of North Adams, Massachusetts sits nestled between state parks and mountain reserves a few miles south of the Vermont border. During the postwar boomer years, the town was a bustling manufacturing center, but in 1984, the local electric company shut down its factory operations, putting thousands of residents out of work. Since then, the town has been mired in financial troubles. Fast forward to today and North Adams is best known as home of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) — one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world.

A new documentary called Museum Town chronicles MASS MoCA’s tumultuous early years and examines its founders’ vision of art as a tool for economic development. In her directorial debut, journalist and author Jennifer Trainer returns to a project that first fascinated her back in 1985, when she wrote an article for The New York Times about the fledgling idea to situate an art museum in a struggling small town. Narrated by Meryl Streep, and featuring a gentle but energetic original score by Wilco bassist John Stirratt, the film is a deceptively breezy retrospective on Mass MoCA’s unlikely success; it illuminates how and to what extent art and cultural institutions can help revive communities under duress.

Museum Town, which premiered March 10th at the South by Southwest Film Festival, is comprised of two main narrative threads: the first lays out a history of the institution’s funding challenges since staff members of the Williams College of Art took hold of a newly vacated North Adams factory space in 1986. Inspired by the conceptual goals of large-scale public artworks, such as those of Donald Judd and Richard Serra, the MASS MoCA founders sought to reinvent how museums function. The strand of contemporary art they hoped to exhibit concerned itself with resisting its own commodification through sheer impracticality and size. The museum, as a result, had to evolve to mirror these concerns. It was in development for 13 years before it finally opened its doors in 1999; Museum Town‘s release coincides with its 20th anniversary.

Truly preposterous in scale, MASS MoCA resembles a campus more than a typical art museum. Comprised of 26 brick buildings, one exhibition space the size of a football field, and 600,000 square feet dedicated to the seemingly boundless display of art, MASS MoCA is now considered a cultural landmark and a site of pilgrimage for arts enthusiasts.

Museum Town was shot by a team of three cinematographers, and for the most part the camera stays close to the ground as it explores the massive complex and admires its scale much in the way we look up at skyscrapers in a metropolis. A series of aerial shots contextualize the museum’s sprawling presence relative to the rest of North Adams, which is a quaint but largely uneventful place.

Nick Cave, “Until,” installation view (photo by Robert Moeller for Hyperallergic)

To illustrate years of uncertainty from skeptical politicians reluctant to offer state funding for MASS MoCA, Trainer hones in on a pivotal moment in the museum’s history — a 1996 visit by Massachusetts’ then-governor, the Republican William Weld. In an interview, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne recounts holding his first solo exhibition in the unfinished museum space. Entitled Desire, it featured provocative photographs of drug paraphernalia superimposed onto scenic landscapes. This was the exhibition that Governor Weld evaluated when deciding whether to grant MASS MOCA the necessary $18 million to open. While nervous staffers and Byrne himself look back at the Governor’s tour as an encapsulation of the spiritual conflict at the root of the MASS MOCA vision, the visit yielded an unexpected positive response.

“I think it’s just counterintuitive enough to work,” the former Governor concluded.

The second component of Museum Town covers the development and 2016 premiere of one of the institution’s most labor-intensive installations, Until, Nick Cave’s monumental statement on gun violence and race in America. While the documentary certainly touches on Cave’s individual process and his various sources of inspiration, its focus is on the collaboration required to create an artwork of this scope. Best known for his sculptural costumes, or “Soundsuits,” Cave scoured the internet and thrift shops for objects to include in the intimidating sensory overload that was Until. Challenging the notion of individual artistic production, the documentary shows how Until is equally indebted to the labor of MASS MoCA staff and local artisans, who at Cave’s direction created the intricate details — objects made entirely of pony beads, welded flowers, long crystal streamers — that made up the whole.

View of columns along the outer perimeter of the interior of Building 6 at MASS MoCA (image by Alex Jen for Hyperallergic)

Not surprisingly, tensions persist between MASS MoCA’s cosmopolitan appeal and the lived reality of North Adams locals. To offer diverse perspectives on the institution’s impact on the wider community, Trainer interviews a variety of born-and-bred local residents in addition to MASS MoCA insiders. Suffice it to say, there’s an enormous rift between how curators and the older generation of locals view the purpose of contemporary art. The positive effects MASS MoCA has had on the town’s economy, however, cannot be denied: the museum has created many jobs and dramatically increased tourism. While there’s nothing particularly ambitious about Museum Town’s execution, this succinct documentary offers a fascinating foray into an unexpected success story — what is hopefully only the beginning of North Adams’ transformation.

Museum Towndirected by Jennifer Trainer, premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival on March 10th, 2019.

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