MUSEUM TOWN Film Review — Art Against All Odds

Can Art Tourism Create Jobs?

Set in a pastoral landscape of rolling hills, forests, and pastures in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, a formerly prosperous town was languishing. Rich in spirit and natural beauty, North Adams, was struggling to survive amid high unemployment, illiteracy, and poverty. 

A nearby Director of the Williams College’s Museum of Art was interested in space for large art pieces. “Art museums are an 18th Century idea in a 19th Century box.”  He suggested a contemporary art museum to improve the North Adams economy. The Mayor and townspeople wanted economic renewal,  but many expressed that the idea of a museum was preposterous

Could they change a derelict, brick factory compound into a world-class contemporary art museum? 

Could art tourism create jobs, resources and revitalize their town? 

Where would they get the funding? 

Were people willing to come to western Massachusetts for contemporary art?  

Ruth Yarter, a longtime resident, when asked these questions expressed the thoughts of many townspeople when she said, “What is that stuff?  People in North Adams are not ready for this.”

MUSEUM TOWN is a Story of Serendipity and Good Luck

Sharing heartfelt interviews, as well as historical footage, the Director and one of the founding members of the museum, Jennifer Trainer, created this documentary. Dialogue with townspeople and museum staff is interspersed with the museum’s works and commentary by major contemporary artists — Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Nick Cave, and James Turrell. Individual personalities and perspectives emerge. Viewers see a step-by-step narrative. Major obstacles, foreseen and unexpected, are detailed. 

Serendipity and good luck play roles here too. The founders, staff and the community came together using hard work, talent, and dogged perseverance. At one point, MASS MoCA finally gets a much-needed commitment of funds from the Governor. Yay!, you may find yourself cheering, as this reviewer did.  But, by the time the cash is supposed to be allocated, another Governor is in power and he’s hesitant to spend public money on contemporary art. One obstacle after another is overcome. MUSEUM TOWN engages us completely—sharing the optimism, idealism, and drive of all involved in the effort to bring this museum to life.

Poignant and Topical

As the museum takes shape, we also witness the creation of Nick Cave’s installation, UNTIL. His work—in part an exploration of racism in America—feels, to this reviewer, so poignant and topical, and couldn’t be more contemporary.  

If you miss seeing art in the flesh, want a get-away without leaving home, enjoy provocative, contemporary art, and are looking for a hopeful film, this documentary is perfect. Enjoy. 


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Directed by: Jennifer Trainer
Executive Producers: Rachel Chanoff and Jack and Susy Wadsworth 
Produced by: Noah Bashevkin, Jennifer Trainer, and Ivy Meeropol
Narrated by: Meryl Streep
Artists and Subjects featured: Nick Cave, James Turrell, Laurie Anderson & David Byrne
Original music by Music Supervisor: John Stirratt of Wilco, featuring songs by Talking Heads, Sharon Jones, Big Thief, Moses Sumney among others


For more information on the movie and upcoming screenings, visit the MUSEUM TOWN Movie website. 

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Images courtesy of The Office Arts

Caryn Hoffmann
Caryn Hoffman

About the Author: Caryn Hoffman

Ms. Hoffman has a degree in art and her life’s work has been environmentally and  politically focused. After community organizing on both coasts, she had a career as an educator in Southern California. Now, semi-retired, Ms. Hoffman leads an active, outdoor lifestyle, continues to advocate for the environment and travels. She is especially fond of art, film, cultural events and is an ardent, live music fan. She loves adventure travel including camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting and road biking.

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