Modern Art Goes Very Big in Smalltown, USA with the Voice of Meryl Streep.



Art has grown beyond art galleries.  Is the answer bigger galleries?  Or art factories?  Not like Warhol’s infamous Factory; but rather, actual huge abandoned factories converted into fully functional modern art space.  That’s exactly what they’ve got in the sleepy small town of North Adams, Massachusetts.  Once a bustling production facility for Sprague Electric, the town’s prominent quarter mile 160+-year-old structure has since become the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art, or as it’s more commonly referred, MASS MoCA.  

A man states with breathless authority how conventional art galleries are an eighteenth-century idea in nineteen century boxes that reached their peak relevance in the mid-twentieth century.  Galleries are passé, but no better idea has caught on.  So, is more space really the solution?  As evidenced in Museum Town– journalist Jennifer Trainer’s humble and always-compelling documentary about MASS MoCA- a vast display area doesn’t render art any more or less immediate, graspable, or understandable to the average small towner.  It just grants artists a much larger area to fill.  Grandiosity, then, becomes a sort of unwritten expectation.  Grandiosity, though, costs money.  Expense means recoupment is a priority.  Recoupment then requires marketability and commercial viability.  Enter the art world celebrities.  Rare is the venue that can lure the likes of them.

If anyone is in a position to understand the ins and outs and moving parts of all of this, it’s Trainer.  Though she doesn’t make much of it aside from a fully acknowledging text screen at the very beginning, she is one of the few MASS MoCA insiders who was with the project from nearly the very start.  Consequently, she knows exactly what the story is, who to talk to about what, and where the proverbial bodies are buried.  But don’t expect much dirt slinging in Museum Town.  The whole point is how Everytown USA can benefit from an infusion of the arts… if it’s on a grand enough scale. Meryl Streep narrates the movie, although not intrusively.

Like many contemporary documentaries, Museum Town finds a reoccurring narrative with MASS MoCA’s presentation of visual arts superstar Nick Cave (not to be confused with the awesome musician) and his process of absolutely filling the gargantuan former factory space in a way that perhaps no artist has prior. Trainer freely bops back and forth between the making of this very cool exhibit and the history of the venue, reconciling both its cultural and monetary values in elevating the once-destitute North Adams.  It seems like most of the longtime residents don’t understand all this weird modern art stuff and the crowd it attracts, but they understand that it’s paying off.  If nothing else, it’s got its own craft beer bar, a coffee shop, and a major performance venue, where we see Wilco rocking out.

Trainer’s approach is entirely utilitarian, and in no way unconventional.  New interviews commingle with recent and vintage B-roll and still images.  Notable participants include past MASS MoCA collaborators/art-world musicians Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, as well as an array of Massachusetts political leaders who were involved in the venue’s opening and a few aging locals who went to work in the building during World War II.  

Ultimately, Museum Town plays as a quite competent pitch down the middle, a conventional film about the value of unconventional art.  It would be right at home playing on PBS to the NPR crowd; in other words, upper-middle class folks who consider themselves progressive but would likely not venture into modern art exhibits unprompted.  Museum Town isn’t a fundraising piece, but it’s darn close.  But that’s fine- the story and tensions therein are enough to legitimately carry the documentary as a satisfying, educational, and inspiring watch.  Unfortunately, Kino Lorber’s DVD release of Museum Town is barebones, excepting the film’s own trailer.  There’s probably plenty of interesting outtakes.

The fact that art drives commerce- even crazy, original unexplainable modern art like the kind MASS MoCA facilitates- has been and probably will always be a tough sell for many.  Museum Town subtly positions itself as fully affirming of the value of modern art within a common community through its framework of detailing the story of this absolutely unique enterprise.