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January 13th, 2021

By Karen Rosenberg

In the new documentary "Museum Town," the former Guggenheim director and Mass MoCA co-founder Thomas Krens neatly summarizes the frustrations that led him to envision a mega-museum in a troubled post-industrial area of Berkshire County: "Art museums were an 18th-century idea in a 19th-century box that more or less fulfilled their structural destiny in the mid-20th-century."

"Museum Town," made by Mass MoCA's founding director of development Jennifer Trainer, chronicles the long and sometimes rocky process of making a new kind of museum—one without that sense of containment, where artists could be given the run of acres of gallery space and historic factory architecture could enhance more creative kinds of production. In the late 1980s, Krens—together with two of his then students at Williams College, Joseph Thompson and Michael Govan—laid the groundwork for such an institution in a 19th-century mill complex in North Adams, Massachusetts. 

Inaugurated in 1999, Mass MoCA encompasses some 200,000 square feet of exhibition space, including one continuous gallery the size of a football field. By the time it opened, Krens had decamped to the Guggenheim and Govan had moved on to lead Dia:Beacon (on his way to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Thompson stayed on to finish the project and lead the museum for the next two decades; he announced his departure late last year, a fact that makes "Museum Town" come across as the closing of a chapter.

It is, and it isn't. With commentary from the founders and many others, "Museum Town" also reminds us that Mass MoCA set a new template for the contemporary art museum—one that remains in effect today: long-term installations, giant post-industrial spaces, high-profile performing arts programs, and an emphasis on all things immersive and experiential. Its DNA can be found in Dia:Beacon, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the downtown Whitney, and many newer institutions.

The film is also a sort of community portrait, allotting camera time to a range of museum workers from curators to fabricators as well as local and state politicians and not a few celebrities (the sonorous narration is by Meryl Streep, and big names in art and music including Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, James Turrell, and Wilco make appearances; the soundtrack is by Wilco's John Stirratt.)

As other reviews have noted, "Museum Town" touches on a number of controversial topics without going too deeply into any one of them. (To be fair, the 2008 fiasco that surrounded Christoph Buchel's unfinished installation Training Ground for Democracy, culminating in a federal lawsuit in which the museum prevailed against the artist but, as Randy Kennedy wrote in the New York Times, "lost, mostly, in the court of public opinion," probably deserves its own documentary.)

The movie is refreshingly forthright, however, about the revitalization of North Adams as a work-in-progress; rather than present Mass MoCA solely as a savior of a decaying post-industrial city, the filmmakers show downtown's empty storefronts and interview a local man in a soup kitchen who says he has never been to the museum.

Another perspective on the museum and its setting comes from the nonagenerian former factory worker turned museum volunteer Ruth Irene Yarter (who first worked on the site during World War II, when it was home to Sprague Electrics.) In Yarter's candid recollections, initial skepticism of Mass MoCA and the kind of art it shows give way to fascination and, eventually, appreciation. The final scenes of the movie show her enthralled as she cautiously navigates one of Turrell's "Ganzfeld" light installations. Yarter died in 2018, at 93, and the film is dedicated to her. 

Also moving is the footage of the beleaguered but cheerful fabricators who were tasked with realizing artist Nick Cave's installation "Until," which filled the museum's enormous Building Five with a shimmering artificial garden composed of, among other things, more than 10 miles of crystals and 16,000 wind spinners. Watching these scenes in an ongoing pandemic, it's impossible not to think about the painful furloughs of many museum employees and temporary workers that have marked the past year. Last March, Mass MoCA closed its galleries temporarily (it reopened in July) and laid off 120 of its 165 employees due to pandemic-related financial concerns.

In general, "Museum Town" feels like a warning not to take our art institutions for granted. Museums everywhere are now facing previously unimaginable pressures, with audiences limited by the virus and public and private funding sources sharply reduced. The new museum model epitomized by Mass MoCA, which relies on festivals such as Freshgrass and Wilco's Solid Sound to bring in audiences and provide another source of revenue, is under particular strain.

In a transcript of a conversation with the producer Noah Bashevkin that was circulated along with the movie's press release, Trainer reflected on her inspiration for "Museum Town": "Perhaps the most fundamental reason I wanted to tell the story is that when you look at institutions today and they seem like they'll always be around, you don't really know the story of how they actually got here. There was a time when it wasn't obvious that MoMA or the Met would always be there. There was a risk. I wanted to tell the story of one particular institution and how it landed." It's worth focusing on this story in 2021, as new risks for Mass MoCA, and all art museums, become painfully clear.

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