Review: Museum Town Is an Insider’s Love Letter to Mass MoCA

The new documentary Museum Town, about the decades-long journey to create a contemporary art museum in northwest rural Massachusetts, boasts in its marketing materials that the film is narrated by Meryl Streep. That’s technically true, as Streep pops in now and then to read through some historical facts or a particularly contentious correspondence between museum administration and an artist. But her presence is really more of an afterthought, as filmmaker Jennifer Trainer (who also happens to be one of the driving forces behind the museum’s creation) instead allows the museum staff and the citizens of North Adams, where it’s located, to tell their story themselves.

Museum Town
Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

A “typical New England mill town,” North Adams was once a bustling center of commerce and residential life; in the early years of World War II, Sprague Electric built a massive production factory in town and the local economy boomed. When the company closed the factory in 1985, the town collapsed around it and the massive brick buildings once churning out parts for the war effort left empty. Museum Town does its best to recount the journey from there to transform the sprawling Sprague campus from dilapidated, abandoned blight to repurposed, reimagined gallery and exhibit space for some of the most compelling artists working today. With the help of politicians and community members, artists and benefactors, Trainer recounts the many, many hurdles to  creating a space that would function not only as a regional home for contemporary art but as an economic driver for the town, something to return North Adams to its former glory.

It’s an interesting enough story in a capably constructed narrative, and in some ways, the story of creating Mass MoCA is universal, known to any town that’s tried to launch a program or project on a grand scale in the hopes of reinventing itself. But in other ways, Museum Town is very much a story most interesting to the residents of North Adams (or perhaps, to be a bit more generous, the region), those who’ve lived through the saga of the museum’s creation and who will see the film as a worthy archive of all they accomplished.

What’s most compelling is when Trainer zooms out from the bureaucracy of building the museum, how funding falls through or trustees step up, to focus instead on the curators and artists bringing grand-scale works to the facility. With massive empty factory buildings to play with, artists are commissioned years in advance to fill the space with their latest conceptual piece, and the footage of some of these installations, as well as the stories behind them, are fascinating. Perhaps it’s the pandemic-induced yearning to wander art museums talking, but watching Chicago artist Nick Cave and the Mass MoCA fabrication team build out a new exhibition is sheer brilliance, the scope and scale of it something to behold, even on screen.

Most of Museum Town plays as a bit of a pet project; it’s an insider telling an insider’s story, and that’s fine. That the museum exists at all is a bit of a miracle, and certainly required the support, funding and otherwise, from a vast array of consituents. Those who drove the process forward in the ’80s and ’90s who can now look back on the institution they not only created but made sustainable should rightfully be proud of their accomplishments. The film about the journey, however, will probably do best in the museum’s gift shop, the perfect companion piece to those who already have an appreciation for the space.

Museum Town is now streaming at Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from your Sofa” program. A portion of your rental goes to support the cinema while it’s closed.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone