SXSW Film Review: Museum Town

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Editor's note: Although Jennifer Trainer was one of the earliest supporters and employees of Mass MoCA, the following review of "Museum Town" incorrectly names her as a co-founder. The museum's concept was envisioned in 1986 by Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art. Krens would further develop that concept over the next two years with Joseph C. Thompson and Michael Govan, both Williams College graduates and WCMA colleagues, as well as with the support of John Barrett III, then mayor of North Adams. Thompson was named the museum's founding director in 1988. That same year, Krens became director of the Guggenheim Foundation. Govan, now director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, became Krens' deputy director at the time.

There are dozens, even hundreds of cities across America that were born of industry, and when that industry left, they died. Some, like North Adams, were saved by art.

Well, sort of. "Museum Town," which received its world premiere Sunday at SXSW, shows that the genesis, opening, and continued existence of Mass MoCA, the nation's largest contemporary art gallery in the shell of an old factory, wasn't just about a few installations. It has taken determination, years of political wrangling, huge amounts of money, and a vast cast of elected officials, administrators, volunteers, artists, artisans, engineers, and mechanics.

As a co-founder of the museum, director Jennifer Trainer arguably has a conflict of interest with this story; but her journalistic instincts (she wrote about Mass MoCA for The New York Times before she became an advocate) mean she doesn't shy away from the complexities of dropping a major art gallery into a community where a lot of residents would rather have a new lumber mill. Nor does she avoid more esoteric conflicts, like the gallery's flaming fallout with artist Christoph Buchel in 2007 over his incomplete installation, "Training Ground for Democracy."

Those complexities are balanced by her remarkable achievement in demystifying contemporary art through the construction of Until, a massive new work by Nick Cave (not the musician, although David Byrne plays a key role in MoCA's history). Whether or not you like Cave's epic-scale kitsch, you'll appreciate the labor of the engineers, the jobs created, and the joyful participation of the volunteers - just wait until you meet adorable retiree Ruth. This is art as cultural inspiration and economic development.

This review was originally published in The Austin Chronicle, www.austinchronicle.com.

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