Museum Town sets out to tell the story of a museum, MASS MoCA, and the town it’s located in, North Adams. After this small northwestern Massachusetts town fell into economic ruin in the ’80s when its central factories closed up shop, a mad idea was hatched. A decade later, those factory buildings were turned into one of the largest modern art museums in the country, a museum that plays hosts to installations that couldn’t exist in almost any other museum — after all, there aren’t many museums with open exhibit halls the size of a football field.
When the idea of turning the factories into a museum was hatched, the notion was that a modern art hub would bring economic revival with it. Twenty years after the museum’s opening, the town is still getting by, but it’s unclear whether it’s thriving. And this is where the problem with Museum Town rears its ugly head. Narrated by Meryl Streep and beautifully showcasing some of the amazing exhibits that the museum has housed, the documentary does a great job of making anyone who loves museums or modern art want to hop on a plane to North Adams. But what it fails to do is really unpack the underlying premise behind why MASS MoCA was built in the first place.
One of the talking heads in the film refers to this as “the Bilbao effect,” referencing the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a museum similarly built in an impoverished Spanish town which is now world-renowned (having the Guggenheim name and a building designed by Frank Gehry sure doesn’t hurt). But the documentary does not show us how the Bilbao effect works, or what has and hasn’t worked in North Adams. There are a few suggestions that it has not, in fact, worked as well as folks would like. One person notes that folks do not go downtown after visiting the museum, other say the town remains economically distressed, and while there have to be some detractors of the museum and decades of money that have been put into it, none of them appear in the film.
Which suddenly made sense, halfway through the film, when the viewer is introduced to the museum’s Director of Development and PR, Jennifer Trainer. If that viewer is astute, they’ll also recognize Trainer’s name from the opening credits, as she is the documentary’s director. The documentary is proficiently made from a technical standpoint, and Trainer unsurprisingly has an eye for showcasing some of the incredible exhibits that have been housed at the museum. She doesn’t ignore the museum’s biggest controversy, a protracted litigation it had with an artist over whether it could show his unfinished installation against his wishes. But aside from that moment, the film doesn’t really dig in and get its hands dirty, even though it had time to do so with a running time of less than 90 minutes.
I was in the tank for this documentary before it rolled, because I am someone who firmly believes the underlying thesis of this film and of MASS MoCA, that art is important and can bring cultural and economic revitalization with it. I was hoping to leave the theater with a stack of new arguments in support of the import and value of art as an institution — look what it did for this town, despite these various arguments made against it, etc. As I left the theater, I instead found myself thinking a lot about what the purpose of a documentary is, or should be. Documentaries are not objective news stories, they can have a subjective opinion and point of view. But it seems to me they should also back that opinion up, and that’s ultimately where Museum Town disappoints, as it amounts to little more than an appreciation of the museum itself and some of the art that it has housed. While I generally believe it unfair to judge a film based on the viewer’s expectations, that is also what the film positions itself as: “This is the story of a unique institution, the small town it calls home, and the great risk, hope, and power of art to generate cultural and economic rebirth.” Some of that is on the screen, but I wish the rest of it was as well.
Museum Town had its world premiere at the 2019 South by Southwest Conference.
Header Image Source: Official SXSW Image