'Museum Town': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Kirsten Johnson
A surprisingly successful institution offers what feels like its authorized biography.

Jennifer Trainer, former longtime PR director of MASS MoCA, makes a film about the influential museum's origins.

A look at how a post-industrial ghost town became home to one of the world's largest contemporary-art venues, Museum Town also exemplifies a problematic category of documentary: the project whose makers are close enough to the subject to deliver an attention-worthy film, but too close to make a comprehensive one. Director Jennifer Trainer worked for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) for decades, helping push it from idea to reality as its longtime head of public relations; her executive producers include a venture capitalist who was one of its most important fundraisers. Whatever virtues a film like this might have, critical distance probably isn't one of them.

Fest audiences often tolerate docs about public figures that were made by friends, partners and even the subjects' children, balancing their frequent lack of objectivity against what their privileged access can bring us: home movies, intimate anecdotes, personal perspectives we may never have considered. But Museum Town offers access to nothing a decent journalist couldn't have gathered, and it excludes things a good reporter would deem important. Trainer's first film, it boasts polish and isn't simple boosterism; but it's hardly everything a disinterested art lover will want.

North Adams, Massachusetts, grew up as a textile-mill town before the mill's buildings were taken over by the Sprague Electric Company. After Sprague abandoned the factory in the 1980s, the town became one of the worst places to live in the state, a hub of unemployment and crime in the shadow of Berkshires cultural institutions like Tanglewood and the Clark Art Institute.

Enter a literally and figuratively outsized man named Thomas Krens, who had seen industrial spaces used to show art in Germany and wanted to do the same thing here. Without mentioning the more controversial aspects of Krens' entrepreneurial streak (at the Guggenheim, his muddling of art curation with marketing and corporate promotion attracted scorn from art lovers and museum professionals), the film shows how he sold civic leaders on the idea of turning the mill's decaying buildings into a showcase for contemporary art. Then-mayor John Barrett admits, "I wouldn't walk across the street to see some of this art"; but he suspected the idea would be a boon to the town, and he pushed for it. He was joined by supporters from across the political spectrum, including Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld. (The latter, a Republican, features in an amusing story here.)

Many arts lovers will wish the doc spent less time discussing coalition-building and fundraising. In an outsider-made doc examining the pros and cons of similar institutions not just here but in towns like Beacon, New York, and Marfa, Texas, these perspectives would be useful; here, they feel a little like logrolling. And lovers of clarity will wish it were a little easier to tell when narrator Meryl Streep is delivering the film's own script and when she's reading from a historical document.

But the doc's depiction of MASS MoCA's artistic agenda is worth seeing, as is its behind-the-scenes look at the production of a recent exhibition (Nick Cave's bric-a-brac explosion Until). The uninitiated may incorrectly assume that MASS MoCA is more of an outlier than it actually is in its approach to giant installations and art that isn't readily commercial. But that's not the fault of interviewees like curator Denise Markonish and fabricator Richard Criddle.

As she charts the museum's growth and reception in the larger art world, Trainer can't afford to ignore the 2007 controversy in which the museum tried to show a terrifically elaborate and expensive artwork that Swiss artist Christoph Buchel angrily declared was not complete. She tries to present both sides of the story, in which both parties end up looking bad. But while MASS MoCA's case is made in long interviews with museum director Joseph C. Thompson, neither Buchel nor outside critics like Roberta Smith of The New York Times are interviewed. (Thompson was Trainer's husband, a seemingly relevant fact the doc omits.)

There's a legitimizing effect when festivals program or distributors pick up documentaries like this. Except in rare cases where a slanted perspective or unreliable narrator (hello, Banksy!) is part of a project's appeal, moviegoers have a right to expect gatekeepers will weed out feature-length works of self-promotion. Museum Town makes some efforts to be more than that. But a onetime public relations professional looking to move into documentary filmmaking would probably be wise to start with subjects that never paid her salary.

Production company: The Office
Director: Jennifer Trainer
Screenwriters: Jennifer Trainer, Noah Bashevkin, Pola Rapaport
Producers: Jennifer Trainer, Noah Bashevkin, Ivy Meeropol
Executive producers: Rachel Chanoff, Jack Wadsworth, Susy Wadsworth
Directors of photography: Kirsten Johnson, Daniel B. Gold, Wolfgang Held
Editor: Pola Rapaport
Composers: John Stirratt, Paul Pilot
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Cinetic

74 minutes