A mix of history and modern exhibits, the documentary Museum Town takes viewers through the gigantic studios of the Mass Museum of Contemporary Art or “Mass MoCA.” Blending narratives of artistic vision and clashes, the film focuses on the struggling town of North Adams, MA. Director Jennifer Trainer and limited narration by Meryl Streep tell the story of how North Adams evolved from a small factory town, without a factory, into a modern community for the arts.
Museum Town pays homage to the community of North Adams while also following the creative pursuits of a recent contributor to the museum, Nick Cave (not of “Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds”). Despite being in a small town, “Mass MoCA” is a haven for art on a massive and experimental scale. The movie shows the full breadth of every work housed within this factory-turned-art-house. The locale is not without its drawbacks, as members of the community and legal battles begin to plague the museum. Museum Town seeks to convey the gradual progression of a broken community’s return to greatness, all while “radically rethinking of what a museum could be.”
“…the story of how North Adams evolved from a small factory town, without a factory, into a modern community for the arts.”
The biggest compliment I can pay to this documentary is how they frame and display each exhibit at “Mass MoCA.” Every shot in the museum makes you feel like you are in the studio with these enormous structures of modern art. Trainer – being a former employee of “Mass MoCA” – takes great strides to show her love for this place that celebrates art on a colossal level.
One of the biggest struggles of Museum Town is the mixed narrative it depicts, attempting to blend a story of opening difficulties with an intimate look at the creative process. Offering multiple perspectives in a documentary is often necessary for delivering an insightful film. However, the movie’s transitions and telling of these varying views feels out of place as the production tries to find its footing. There are moments Museum Town feels like an in-depth doc on “Mass MoCA” in 2019 and creating art in a place that may not welcome it. However, in other scenes, the film feels like a traditional educational documentary about the history of an art museum. Due to these contrasts in style and subject matter, the motion picture can feel like two documentaries fused into one, which is a problem with only a 65-minute runtime.
When watching Museum Town, I was genuinely interested in how the museum was doing in recent times and was compelled by the idea of locals resisting the art community “Mass MoCA” brought to their humble town. Unfortunately, the modern narrative is often undercut by flashes of the struggle to build “Mass MoCA” and scenes of historic North Adams. Both stories have tons of potential but mixing them requires a more consistent thread and tone. Regardless of any shortcomings, the movie did legitimately make me want to visit these beautiful pieces in the flesh. If it accomplishes nothing more, it will inspire you to see “Mass MoCA” for yourself.
"…both stories have tons of potential but mixing them requires a more consistent thread and tone."