Museum Town

From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky

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