From North Adams to Austin, Texas ... 'Museum Town' debuts at SXSW
How first-time director Jennifer Trainer's documentary about an improbable museum made its way to South by Southwest Film Festival
AUSTIN, TEXAS — "If I had to distill the essence of the film, it's really about risk."
On Sunday night, Jennifer Trainer was standing on the stage of the Alamo Ritz's largest theater, answering a question from the audience about "Museum Town." The documentary had just premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, a nine-day event that is part of the massive annual arts, media and technology gathering in Austin, Texas, known as SXSW. Trainer's film explores the improbable rise of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and its current standing in the city, a prominent position it wouldn't hold without artistic and political leaps of faith undertaken by figures such as Nick Cave and Jane Swift. Yet, Trainer just as easily could have been talking about herself onstage, and not simply because of her 28 years of development and public relations work at the museum that helped build the institution from its nascence. Her role on the film project was a risk, too.
"People would say, 'Who's directing?' And I would say, 'I am.' People are too polite to say anything, but you could just tell, with the long pause and the slight purse of the lips, the disapproval," Trainer said on the Thursday before the screening.
She was sitting in her office at Hancock Shaker Village, where she currently serves as the president and CEO following her decades at Mass MoCA. (Trainer also serves on The Berkshire Eagle's advisory board.) A poor movie production wouldn't have jeopardized Trainer's museum career by any stretch, nor would it have diminished her successes as a cookbook author. But it would have been a creative disappointment for Trainer and, very likely, the donors she had rallied to make the film a reality. Their dollars were part of the reason she kept moving forward with the project after realizing it was going to take much longer to finish than the mere months she had between leaving Mass MoCA and starting at Hancock Shaker Village in January 2017.
"I can't turn back," Trainer recalled thinking at that time.
After assuming her new role at Hancock, she spent nearly all of her vacation time in Brooklyn, refining the film with editor Pola Rapaport. They would also Skype and meet in the Berkshires on a couple of occasions.
"She deserves an award. She really does. She was so accommodating to my crazy schedule," Trainer said of Rapaport.
Ultimately, with the able assistance of Rapaport, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, Wilco's John Stirratt, narrator Meryl Streep, executive producer Rachel Chanoff, producer Noah Bashevkin and many, many others, Trainer created a film that was visually, sonically and emotionally compelling enough to land in one of the U.S.' top festivals.
"It [was] this rich collaboration. I was able to hire some of the best in the business," Trainer said.
Competing in the documentary feature category with nine other films, "Museum Town" didn't win any jury awards, but spectators, including a number of museum staffers from across the country, expressed ample appreciation at its three screenings to send Trainer home on a high as she awaits the film's distribution future.
"I was delighted," Trainer said before boarding a flight back from Austin.
The director plans to show the film in the Berkshires at some point, though no details are available yet as she lets Cinetic Media, a New York City-based advisory firm, plot its post-SXSW festival route. When Berkshirites do see the documentary, they will undoubtedly enjoy the aerial shots of Mass MoCA and North Adams courtesy of Wolfgang Held. (You've never heard the Hoosic River sound so good, either.) The opening not only features this intertwining of natural and architectural landscape, but also the first song, Big Thief's "Objects," off the documentary's soundtrack, which was a focus for Trainer.
"I wanted it so you would just want to listen to it," she said of the film, heaping praise on Stirratt for his work and others assisting on the songs.
There were about 70 music cues in "Museum Town," a heavy load for a documentary, according to Stirratt.
"It was a little daunting," he said.
His respect for Trainer spurred him to contribute to the project, helping craft a song list that includes tunes by David Byrne and U.S. Girls. Stirratt wanted to capture the importance of music to the museum's history.
"Music sort of unlocked a lot of the future funding for Mass MoCA," Stirratt said.
The film certainly details the economic and political aspects of Mass MoCA's development. Streep offered to narrate some of that history; her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, has had work on display at both Mass MoCA and Hancock Shaker Village. Trainer interviews state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, the former North Adams mayor, among other leaders, and uses old news clips and locals' soundbites to emphasize the opposition that the contemporary art museum faced in the blue-collar city. It's the film's other characters that will feel like fresh stories to locals, though. Cave, for instance, earned plenty of Berkshire attention when his "Until" Building 5 exhibit opened in 2016, but Trainer and Johnson offer viewers a never-before-seen look at the artist's process as he imagines and creates the show.
"Oh, my God! No way!" Cave says as he sets eyes upon the football field-length Building 5 for the first time early in the film.
For Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson, the Cave material is a highlight of "Museum Town."
"It takes us deep inside the making of a major work of art," said Thompson, who appears in the film and was married to Trainer when the film project was first raised. (They have since divorced.)
"Museum Town" is the third documentary about Mass MoCA. Seventeen years ago, North Adams native Nancy Kelly debuted "Downside Up," and Christoph Green and Brendan Canty released "Every Other Summer," about Wilco's biennial Solid Sound Festival, in 2015. Neither was shown at South by Southwest, a festival with diverse programming and youthful energy that mirrors Mass MoCA's, to some degree. Cinetic had made the call to submit to SXSW.
"It's a perfect place for 'Museum Town' to premiere," Berkshire International Film Festival Artistic Director Kelley Vickery said.
It would be hard to find an event that represents the current and future states of American culture more than South by Southwest. This convergence of tastemakers in the arts, journalism, technology and politics includes several festivals and conferences that celebrate the performance and discovery of new ideas. These events take place in or around the Austin Convention Center, this year luring actors such as Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron, as well as presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Howard Schultz.
While "South by" (never "South by Southwest" to locals) provides important platforms for creative thought and expression, this annual cross-pollination of ideas is oft-ridiculed because it can also accentuate some of our culture's seediest aspects, including excessive self-promotion and shamelessness. One talk on Sunday was called "Branding is Sex, Get Your Customer Laid and Sell Anything." (Alarmingly, it was based on a book of a similar title.) Drawing tech titans, consultants and marketers, the "Interactive" portion of the event can also be a buzzword bonanza. As The Onion, a satirical news website, once wrote in a headline, "Word `Innovate' Said 650,000 Times At SXSW So Far." Yet, even its mockers can't resist South by Southwest's appeal: The Onion contributed to a panel at last year's event.
This reporter quickly learned that the bar for having a panel was rather low. Upon arriving at a modest hotel outside the downtown area, a staffer casually asked if I would be running or participating in one of these talks. He wasn't crazy to have expected a "yes"; the panel list was a seemingly endless scroll on the SXSW app. The query, however, announced how swollen South by Southwest had become since its humble beginnings as a small music and media conference. In 1986, a group began holding private conversations at The Austin Chronicle's offices about the future of media, as well as the local music scene, concluding that the latter had oodles of talent, but needed more exposure. They noticed the same phenomenon in other communities. The next year, they started South by Southwest, expecting there to be 150 registrants. There were 700.
By 1994, Johnny Cash was giving the music festival's keynote speech. The SXSW Film and Media Conference (SFMC) was added that year, featuring two world premieres. In 1997, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith participated in one of the festival's panels together. The star-studded event may have had something to do with the 1998 festival's film submissions growing from 638 to 1,015. (In 2019, the festival received 8,490 submissions, 2,351 of which were feature length.)
As the festival grew older, its reputation rose. In 2007, Judd Apatow premiered "Knocked Up" in Austin; 2012 brought "21 Jump Street." But comedies haven't been the festival's only acclaimed fare. In 2003, it closed with the celebrated documentary, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Later on, "Undefeated" went on to win Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards after its Austin premiere.
The 2019 film festival began on March 8 with the ballyhooed debut of "Us," Jordan Peele's first feature since "Get Out." The next night, a throng watched McConaughey, an Austin resident, enter the 1,100-Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue prior to the premiere of Harmony Korine's "The Beach Bum."
Trainer's arrival at the smaller Alamo Ritz before the "Museum Town" premiere on Sunday night wasn't greeted by any flashbulbs, but there was plenty of activity surrounding her on East 6th Street as she walked in with her team at around 5 p.m., one hour before the 74-minute film was set to roll. Festivalgoers flowed down the blocked road, their different-colored lanyards indicating varying levels of access to different events. Across the street, The Blind Pig Pub was hosting an open-air rock show, a common occurrence in what the airport promotes as the "Live Music Capital of the World." And a watering hole to the right encouraged pedestrians to "Ride The Bull" inside.
Earlier on, film buffs were stopping by an information table outside the Alamo Ritz, checking out the schedule to see what was screening next.
"No idea what `Museum Town' is," one of them said.
Sarah Burleson had an idea. The Blanton Museum of Art staffer was waiting outside the theater more than an hour before the film's screening. Her Austin, Texas, institution has hosted donor trips to distant art hubs, such as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., and is now considering Mass MoCA as a possible destination for next fall or winter.
"It's a great opportunity," she said.
Trainer had done some venturing of her own on this day, going for a 5-mile walk around the city that some refer to as the "Silicon Valley of Texas." A morning meeting with Cinetic had been postponed, but a couple of the company's representatives met her, Bashevkin, Chanoff, Rapaport and Jack Criddle, who served as production coordinator on "Every Other Summer," in the Alamo Ritz lobby that night. They accompanied the group into the 172-seat theater, where several scenes were played to check for sound and other effects.
"Can we watch more?" Trainer quipped.
Shortly thereafter, spectators began filing in, filling nearly all of the theater's 172 seats. In addition to Cave, the film followed curator Denise Markonish; director of fabrication and art installation Richard Criddle; and crowd favorite Ruth Yarter. The late North Adams native worked at Sprague Electric for 43 years before becoming a volunteer at Mass MoCA.
"She ties it all together," said Carlos Lowry, an Austin painter, after the film.
The ongoing tension between some longtime North Adams residents and the contemporary art community wasn't lost on viewers. For Austin actress Margaret Hoard, the situation in North Adams reminded her a bit of the one in Austin, where gentrification of the city's eastern neighborhoods continues. She could understand some North Adams locals' frustrations with the museum while also appreciating the institution's mission.
"[They're] trying to do something so magnificent," Hoard said.
Chisato Hughes of Los Angeles' Hammer Museum found the narrative to be more uplifting than expected.
"I'm more used to stories of gentrification that are not as positive," Hughes said.
Trainer isn't surprised that some viewers focused on the gentrification angle.
"I hope the film will appeal to people on different levels: those who care about gentrification, those who care about the Berkshires, those who care about Williams, those who care about history, those who care about contemporary art, those who like Nick Cave," she said during a post-premiere gathering at the house Trainer and company were renting outside of the downtown area.
She was seated at a table with Bashevkin and Jack Criddle, who compiled archival material for the film. Trainer had been nervous before the screening, hoping the audience would laugh at the right moments and bob their heads to the film's music. She was gratified that they had.
"I felt it was a very generous audience," Trainer said.
At the same time, "Museum Town" is hardly all giggles and grooves. Trainer included, for example, the controversy surrounding Christoph Buchel's "Training Ground for Democracy," an unfinished Building 5 installation that prompted a clash between the artist and the museum. She strived to approach the project journalistically.
"If you're talking about risk, and you're talking about the primacy of utter dedication toward this uphill battle, if it's all just good news, it's false," she said. "I really worked hard to present what I thought was a balanced view of the history through examples that were fun and compelling."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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