How did “the ghost town of the Berkshires” become a cultural mecca? Follow this amazing and unlikely journey of North Adams, Massachusetts’ transition from dying mill town to artistic hub.
North Adams used to be a bustling destination. The cozy enclave in rural Massachusetts benefitted from being the home of Sprague Electronics, and, in turn, Sprague benefitted from the population who became their main workforce. The only problem? The corporation ultimately killed the host. As Sprague advanced, they eventually decided to relocate their headquarters. Unfortunately, in their greed, they’d also spent the preceding decades fending off competitors in order to ensure their company would be the only game in town. They succeeded, at great cost to the people who’d given their lives (and, in some cases, several generations) to Sprague’s economic bottom line. What followed was nothing short of devastating as the company moved on and took the largest source of income with them.
The years that followed took its toll, as North Adams tumbled into despair while its inhabitants were ironically forced to live in the shadow of the looming, massive brick complex that Sprague left behind. The building, echoing the town’s fate, also began to crumble. Options were sparse, and the main “hope” for reinvigoration included turning the former Sprague monolith into a jail. Things were, indeed, bleak. Enter Tom Krens, a man who loved modern art and realized the value of space. The vision he dreamt up included taking what Sprague carelessly discarded and turning into a beacon of hope.
Director Jennifer Trainer, she herself a crusader of the endeavor, does a lovely job filling in the viewer on the history of North Adams, as well as the space that eventually bloomed into MASS MoCa (The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). The documentary benefits from Trainer’s long association with the museum and this is clearly a labor of love, especially given that she invested 28 years of her life in helping this staggering goal come to fruition.
Museum Town is a story of adversity, grace, hope, and perseverance. There’s no reason MASS MoCa should exist, but it does – gloriously so – thanks to the ceaseless enthusiasm of many, many hands (and, excitingly, also thanks to a rare display of bipartisan politics). The runtime is relatively short versus the massive history, but Trainer does a lovely job highlighting the necessary pieces to honor it all. You’ll be wowed by Jennifer’s tenacity; from her dedication to working at the museum, to following up her award-winning New York Time’s piece about the project, Trainor has ensured that the importance of this undertaking has been deservedly well-documented. It’s an incredible bonus that the film is narrated by Meryl Streep and the soundtrack is composed and supervised by John Stirratt of Wilco.
Much like the space itself, this movie is a jewel and you will love every moment spent in Museum Town. It's a beautifully engaging and informative watch.
Nuggets - more film thoughts:
* You will fall in love with the world's most adorable volunteer. The film is dedicated to her, and deservedly so. RIP!
* Jeff Tweedy and Wilco made MASS MoCa the home of their amazing Solid Sound Festival. Fingers crossed it happens again safely in the future.
* I'm still delighted by the fact that funding was at one time procured because a Republican senator visited the museum during a David Byrne exhibit and he happened to be a Talking Heads fan. Surprising and humanizing. Music saves! (Current GOPs take note: you don't have to be unrelenting pieces of shit. Thanks!)