Museum Town shows how much power a space can hold. One of the artworks it exhibits is Julianne Swartz’ In Harmony, The Tonal Walkway. That’s a sound piece reverberating within the space of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. There’s a confluence taking place where, where this museum’s specific space is large enough to hold conceptual pieces of work. But that confluence wasn’t always smooth, as Museum Town shows the institution’s tumultuous history. It is a brain child of a few people who thought of a good idea. Why not build a museum in the small Massachusetts town of North Adams? It’s an unlikely way to revive a small town whose way to recovery often involves factories or prisons.
Museum Town, then, shows the history of both the town and those who wanted innovative change. Meryl Streep lends her voice to the documentary as a narrator. The documentary makes occasional rabbit holes into both Mass MoCA and Massachusetts’ history. These scenes are fascinating to both art, history, political junkies, or any combination of those three. Although it’s understandable if the documentary can’t reach people outside of those nice interests. The textbook approach won’t help its detractors. But again, some of the facts and names here are fascinating, names including former Massachusetts governor George Dukakis.
The documentary lets viewers know more about Dudakis than his failed presidential bid. The museum’s situation became more precarious as Dukakis lost the governorship to a Republican. That new governor had to fight against a local person within his own party. One who saw the benefit in having a museum. It makes viewers nostalgic for a time when Republicans saw the benefit and profit within the arts. Although yes, that nostalgia is problematic. Problems aside, Museum Town is better when it concentrates that history on a micro level. Symbolizing that micro history is Nick Cave, an artist mounting an ambitious installation piece. The piece he’s working on is personal. He gathers antiquated home ornaments to comment on loss, a Black artist speaking to white America.
Other artists who used Mass MoCA as their space include David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Wilco. Another symbol of Mass MoCA’s history is Ruth Yarter, a former factory worker turned museum volunteer. Sometimes she shares her insights on artworks that don’t work for her. And at others she’s silent when pieces take her breath away. One of the installations belonging to the latter is Anselm Kiefer’s Velimir Chlebnikov. And there’s something about the close-ups to both Yarter and Velimir. They echo a workman like approach to art subverting that industry’s haughty nature. The documentary’s attention to its subjects remind viewers of art’s universal appeal.