Directed by Jennifer Trainer
Narrated by Meryl Streep
Museum Town is the first feature documentary from award-winning journalist Jennifer Trainer. It chronicles the history of Mass MoCA, the world’s largest contemporary art museum in the world and North Adams, the struggling Massachusetts town it resides in. Trainer herself is one of the co-founders of Mass MoCA. Narrated by Meryl Streep, it mainly focuses on Missouri-born artist Nick Cave (not the of the Bad Seeds) and his epic installation titled Until which involved large scale pieces of found and recycled art and contemporary objects. There are also brief cameos from other artists/musicians like David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and Laurie Anderson.
In the early 80s as well as decades before, North Adams was a thriving factory town most well-known for housing Sprague Electric who manufactured electronic components such as conductors, semi-conductors, resistors/capacitors and ICs (integrated circuits). The factory was mostly a women’s workforce because of what was perceived as delicate detail work fitting small hands.
With a sprawling campus that encompassed 2 or more football fields, Sprague was a city unto itself and helped sustain the city’s economic growth into the 1980s. However, as component manufacturing gradually moved overseas, Sprague decided to cut costs and eventually closed its North Adams facility which put thousands of locals out of work. The connecting highway was also built on the town’s outskirts further debilitating its economic recovery.
Then in the mid 80s, Thomas Krens, an experienced museum director from Williamstown convinced the city’s leadership to convert Sprague’s abandoned buildings into what would become the largest contemporary museum in the world. The vastness of it gave some established and upcoming installation artists the opportunity to exhibit their work in a unique space. Mass MoCA as it was christened, partly rejuvenated North Adams and helped establish itself as a “Museum Town”.
As the film unfolds, we see the progression of North Adams’ history as thriving factory town to depressed city and Mass MoCA’s rise from conception to existence. While the museum continues to tread water in pursuit of financing, the town continues to be conflicted of its identity among the locals. While some have adapted to the museum’s high-brow reputation in the art world (some locals work for the museum) many more struggle to find their place as poverty and homelessness to continue to be problematic.
Though the film is honest about Mass MoCA’s relationship with North Adams, it’s unfortunate that the chasm between the museum and the townsfolk remain deep and wide. Being an artist, I personally feel there should be a common ground between art and audience. But in Museum Town, that seems to be a road less travelled. It’s a reality and perhaps the challenge of Mass MoCA – to reach a common appreciation, understanding and reflection of the people and the town of North Adams.
Museum Town is pleasant to watch but mostly feels like it’s confined within museum walls. And I can’t help feeling a certain detachment from the people of North Adams as if they are still being left behind. They need their voices heard too.
So did you see MUSEUM TOWN? Let us know what you think!