SXSW Review: Museum Town


There’s a moment when you first see a work of art that you consider the individual behind it: how did they even conceive of this project, let alone execute it? What was their inspiration? What was their thought process, by Jove! Sometimes it’s in amazement, other times it may even be in repulsion—in any event, it’s a human reaction to wonder how and why. With so much art, you’ll never know, with many artists long dead, their thought processes relegated to the category of unanswerable questions. Less common, perhaps, but equally intriguing, is the question of how the spaces that curate, collect, and display this art come to be. 

In Jennifer Trainer’s Museum Town, we’re offered rare answers to both these questions. It’s a comprehensive documentary detailing how The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, came to be. Trainer captures the story rather cleverly, offering not only insights into the museum’s formation, struggles, and triumphs, but highlights from a recent installation by artist Nick Cave as a means of showing the museum’s impressive work in progress (in this instance, far more collaborative than you may have ever suspected). Furthermore, she doubles down on the stand that the life of MASS MoCA is the lifeline to the town where it resides, North Adams, MA, and in turn, the community of North Adams is not only vital to, but responsible for the existence of MASS MoCA. Museum Town is the most fun documentary I’ve seen in some time. It makes contemporary art more accessible and highlights how the museum itself aims to do the same. It’s smart, well shot, and well delivered.

Museum Town
Director: Jennifer Trainer
Rated: NR
Release Date: March 10, 2019 (SXSW)

The thing that first began to impress me most about Museum Town was the level of access granted to Trainer throughout her filmmaking journey, doubly so when you consider this is her first sojourn into filmmaking. (I’m stretching the truth to a degree or five—the first thing that impressed me were the brilliant drone shots used to highlight the museum’s integration into the local topography via its original design and use as a mill-based factory—spans of gorgeous 19th century brick spring from waterways that embrace the factory in a fluid grip—the aerials are gorgeous.) Given what seems this unprecedented level of access inside the museum, its galleries, to its employees and beneficiaries, and behind the scenes of the creation and installation of a major work of modern art, it’s little surprise that Trainer is connected to the museum. She was actually one of its first major supporters, and a spearhead in its development from those early years all the way up until 2016. In other words, she knows the place, the principal players, and the prerogative. By making Museum Town, she’s not only continuing to speak to her old passion, she’s still doing her old job: promoting the museum and its benefits to the local community.

Trainer displays none of the deficiencies you might expect from a first-time filmmaker. Rather, as she explained in her post-screening comments at SXSW, she’s just doing what she’s always done, moving from one career to another, seamlessly jumping into a new field in almost expert fashion. (Before she joined MASS MoCA, quickly becoming the lead for its development, she’d been a journalist who happened to read a story about the museum that she found fascinating. I’m using the writer’s prerogative to give her broad sweeping credit here, overplaying the seamless nature of her career transitions—as she herself noted, hinting at some less than perfect moments from her past, she recommends everyone get fired, that’s it’s one of the best things that can happen to you.)

But honestly, who better to know how to tell a compelling story of a fascinating institute than someone who’s lived and breathed it for 30 years? That said, several critical decisions were made to bring this story to life even more vividly. I’ve already mentioned the inclusion of Cave, whose artwork is dramatic and visually arresting, but including the behind the scenes access to the creation of his massive work Until is genius. Brought to life by the museum’s own fabrication team under the expert direction of the artist himself, the footage is carefully interspersed throughout the film’s progression, building to a massive finale in the reveal of the installation via its actual debut.

On the flip-side of its recent work, we get the history of the site, built in 1860, and its linkage to the growth, diminishment, and eventual rebirth of North Adams. This aspect of the film is personified in the form of a lifelong North Adams resident who works at the museum as an usher. She was pulled from High School during WWII to work at the factory fabricating electronics parts for the war effort, remained there until it’s closing, and then rejoined the workforce at the museum once its footing was established. She, and forgive me for not having her name, provides 90-year-old color in the best of ways, as she still remains sharp, critical, and doesn’t really care for contemporary art all that much. Still, she clearly cares for her community and her inclusion completes the human element necessary to bring this story to life in the best light possible. 

Her inclusion, along with Cave’s, and some conveniently provided narration by none other than Meryl Streep are bridges to a more complete version of this film than a non-expert (someone who didn’t know all the details from 30 years’ experience) could create. It’s a success story, it’s visually arresting, it has a wry sense of humor and it benefits all parties involved. As a cinematic piece, it holds your attention from its opening shot to its concluding frame. I found myself, head tilted back, taking it all in, as if I were viewing the art MASS MoCA holds for the duration. Well worth your time, as an art fan, as a curious mind, or as someone who enjoys a good yarn.

Side note and fun fact: both MASS MoCA and SXSW trace their roots back to within a calendar year of each other (1986 / 1987).