Documentary Review: “Museum Town” tracks a dying city’s attempts at revival via a Big Museum

The largest museum of contemporary art in the world, acres and acres in size, was opened in a dying industrial town in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.

MASS MoCa was the most “out there” and yet doable pitch thrown at North Adams, Mass. locals and state officials when the one factory in their “one factory town” closed in the 1980s.

And getting it in there, obtaining state backing and the support of artists and the “arts community” which dumpy, industrial North Adams is pretty far removed from and gauging its impact (or the lack of it) on the city is the story of “Museum Town.”

This engaging documentary and labor of love from one of those instrumental in giving the facility its start, its first development director, now a first-time documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Trainer.

Trainer, a journalist by training, tells the industrial story of North Adams, which first industrialized as a print and dye works in the Industrial Revolution, a company that help on for nearly a century, providing employment even as it polluted the town.

“You could tell which dye they were using by the color of the river that day,” one older local remembers.

An electrical parts factory moved in afterwards, another vast workforce in a huge collection of spaces, putting most of the women of the city to work during World War II and the decades after. And then Sprague up and moved out.

Trainer’s film tells its story in three threads. There’s the history, and the efforts of local officials and boosters to find something to stop the city’s utter collapse (soaring unemployment, social services strained, etc). We meet the nearby artist/dreamers who pushed the idea and deal with its successes and failings to this day.

Then there’s artist Nick Cave — NOT the icon rock icon. We see this contemporary artist install, in a huge space, an exhibit quite typical of today’s MASS MoCa. “Until” was huge in scale, splashy, pushing the museum’s fabrication shop — where craftspeople help an artist “realize his vision” — to its limits. It is a show designed to draw a crowd, at least at the opening.

It took years of pushing, navigating the shifting currents of Massachusetts politics to obtain the huge amount of start up funding. Trainer and those she interviews take us through that, and serve up this delicious anecdote. The plans, approved by then-governor Michael Dukakis, needed further support from the incoming Republican governor William Weld. We hear how the skeptical Weld visited the place to make his mind up about it, treated to an edgy installation by art student turned rock star David Byrne.

“Who knew our Republican governor was actually a huge Talking Heads fan?”

Famous visual artists (Robert Rauschenberg) and artists who gained fame in other media (Laurie Anderson) are a signature of MASS MoCa, which has room for performance spaces, as well as performance art. Wilco shows and metal sculptures can vie for your attention on a given week.

Meryl Streep reads from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” from letters between staff and artists, and from a scathing New York Times review of a museum low point, when a Swiss diva abandoned an ever-growing planned show because of problems of “vision,” exposing MASS MoCa to ridicule and vast losses.

What’s sobering about the film is how plainly this experiment in high culture re-purposing could never work any where else on this scale. Thomas Krens, the nearby college museum curator and co-founder who first came up with the of putting a museum in the Sprague factory points to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain, as akin to MASS MoCa. But whatever the violent history of Basque country, Bilboa’s landmark has a famous architect, a gigantic foundation and a scenic coastal city and waterfront property to recommend it.

Smaller scale versions of industrial buildings turned into galleries have worked all over the world. But try to replicate this grand experiment anywhere outside of The Berkshires, home to colleges, Tanglewood and affluence, and see how far you get.

“Museum Town” still makes makes for a fine recounting of one instance where “thinking big” in the always-strapped-for-cash museum world paid off in post-industrial North Adams. Trainer lets us meet bold thinkers who found a way to put a modern twist on what a museum — “an eighteenth century idea (stuck) in a 19th century box” — could be.

Credits: Directed by Jennifer Trainer, script by Noah Bashevkin, Pola Rapaport and Jennifer Trainer. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:16

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