At its heart, the documentary “Museum Town,” is a love letter — to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, to artistic experimentation and to North Adams, the struggling factory town where the institution is situated.
The film’s main thread follows the staff of Mass MoCA as they prepare for “Until,” a colossal exhibition by the Black sculptor Nick Cave that includes an eclectic mix of found materials like ceramic birds and 10 miles of crystals. The project, which was on display from October 2016 to September 2017, perfectly encapsulates Mass MoCA’s mission: to help contemporary artists realize their wildest dreams and to curate in ways not dictated by the art market. Between scenes of Cave approving different ceramic trinkets and the staff maneuvering the moving pieces of the exhibition are two other stories, narrated by Meryl Streep: The history of Mass MoCA’s uneven development and the story of how North Adams went from a bustling working-class factory town to a divested one.
The film was directed by Jennifer Trainer, who was also the first director of development at the museum, and her adoration for Mass MoCA is obvious at every turn. This isn’t always bad, but at times, one wishes the documentary had more distance from its subject. Interesting conversations about gentrification as a means to revitalization and who a museum serves (the public, the artist, both?) are quickly papered over, and the focus on local residents’ indifference toward contemporary art begins to feel gimmicky. But for those even mildly curious about the story of one of the country’s largest visual and performing arts spaces, “Museum Town” is worth watching.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.