Back in August, desperate to get out of New York City and see some art amid the pandemic lockdown, my wife and I headed north to the Berkshires to MASS MoCA and the Clark Institute, two museums that had reopened with timed tickets, limited capacity, mask wearing, and social distancing. It was my second visit to MASS MoCA and my wife’s first to the extraordinary institution, whose complicated story is told in Jennifer Trainer’s debut documentary, Museum Town, which releases virtually through BAM on December 18. (You can read about our trip here.)
After watching the film, you’ll be ready to head north as well, even though New York museums are now open. As it says on one of Jenny Holzer’s marble benches at MASS MoCA, “Words tend to be inadequate.” You have to see it to believe it.
Trainer notes her unique relationship with the museum at the start: “In 1986, I moved from Manhattan to the Berkshires as a freelance journalist. I soon caught wind of a preposterous idea to turn an old factory into the world’s largest museum of contemporary art and broke the story for the New York Times. Then I signed on to help. Building MASS MoCA from the ground up consumed the next twenty-eight years of my life. . . . I’ve moved on from the museum, but I knew I had to finish writing the story I’d started nearly three decades ago. It was simply too big, too beautiful, too improbable to leave untold.”
Trainer and cowriters Noah Bashevkin and Pola Rapaport reveal it’s all those things and more, going back to the sprawling location’s beginnings as Arnold Print Works, which operated from 1860 to 1942, then as the Sprague Electric Company from 1942 to 1985, whose sudden and unexpected closure decimated the town. But then Thomas Krens, the former director of the Williams College Museum of Art, had the idea of turning the industrial complex into a contemporary art museum, and Williams graduate Joseph C. Thompson joined him in what the latter called “a radical rethinking of what a museum could be.” (Krens and Thompson became founding directors of MASS MoCA, a position Thompson held for thirty-three years.) That astonishing idea sparked ongoing economic and political battles over the value of such an institution for the town of North Adams, which was not a bastion of modern-art lovers. “It was hell on earth to get open,” Thompson remembers.
The residents of the struggling working-class town were not exactly keen on the plan. “People in North Adams are not ready for this,” recalled museum volunteer Ruth Yarter, who had been working at Sprague since 1943, while she was still in high school. Amid the location’s fascinating history, some of which is narrated by Meryl Streep, Trainer focuses in on some of the remarkable art that has been installed in large warehouse spaces, in nooks and crevices, and in gravity-defying outdoor spaces, including Primary Separation, a sculpture by Don Gummer, Streep’s husband.
“MASS MoCA isn’t so concerned about the art world and the museum world. What it really wants to do is make art happen,” curator Denise Markonish says, and much of it is art that can’t happen anywhere else; MASS MoCA thrives on allowing artists to take risks. Trainer shows temporary and long-term installations by Louise Bourgeois, Laurie Anderson, Sol LeWitt, Spencer Finch, Franz West, Joseph Beuys, Michael Oatman, and others — seeing James Turrell testing out his immersive Into the Light room is a special treat — and doesn’t shy away from the controversy surrounding Christoph Büchel’s Training Ground for Democracy, a fierce court fight about creative control over the unfinished work.
Interspersed throughout the documentary is an irresistible behind-the-scenes look at the installation of American multidisciplinary artist Nick Cave’s 2016-17 “Until,” a vast, fantastical landscape of found objects, chandeliers, crystals, lawn jockeys, and myriad other items that address racism, gun violence, police brutality, and gender issues; the name of the exhibition comes from the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” (You can see my photos here.)
“This is just this place of imagination and dreaming,” Cave says as he works with a large staff from the museum, including director of fabrication and art installation Richard Criddle and fabricator Megan Tamas, to make the seemingly impossible come to life, revealing that collaboration is an art form itself.
MASS MoCA also hosts live events in its unusual spaces, so Trainer has filled the documentary with an impressive soundtrack featuring songs by Bill Callahan, Wilco, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, David Byrne (whose exhibition “Desire” ran at the museum in 1996), Ruthie Foster, the War on Drugs, Lucius, and others in addition to an original score by John Stirratt and Paul Pilot.
“How the hell did it happen?” architect Simeon Bruner asks at the beginning of the film. Thanks to Trainer, now we know.