The biggest museums in the United States are typically concentrated in the city centers of large metropolitan areas—with public transportation convenient, in most cases, for getting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other mega-institutions of note. That makes MASS MoCA, a museum with more than 250,000 square feet of space in North Adams, Massachusetts, an outlier among its peers. The museum is inaccessible by train and located in a remote post-industrial town in the Berkshires with a population of fewer than 13,000.
And yet, against all odds, it has become a veritable art-world destination for artists, curators, critics, and historians alike filled with vast site-specific works that won’t fit anywhere else other than inside the museum’s cavernous walls. Today, its galleries—some as big as a football field—house a selection of monumental works by the likes of Anselm Kiefer, Franz West, Joseph Beuys, and more. “You could never have a MASS MoCA in a major city,” says Denise Markonish, a curator at the museum, in a new documentary from Jennifer Trainer about the storied institution called Museum Town.
As Museum Town goes to show, nothing about MASS MoCA guaranteed that it would be a success when plans for it were first announced in 1986. Massachusetts politicians worried that such a project would grow too big, too costly, and too hifalutin. Locals viewed the museum as an art-world outpost intended to woo the elite, effectively bringing with it art no one in town would understood along with a wave of gentrification. (“People in North Adams are not ready for this,” a volunteer at MASS MoCA recalls thinking at the time.) Befuddled art critics looked on in wonderment as the people facilitating the $37 million renovation of a former mill complex.
The person who came up with the idea for MASS MoCA, Thomas Krens, worked tirelessly to realize the museum, however. In 1986, he was director at the nearby Williams College Museum of Art when he came up with the idea of converting a newly closed Sprague Electric factory into an art museum. He’d been thinking of works by Minimalist and Land artists that museums had generally shied away from collecting in depth because of their size. What if there was an institution big enough to host them? Having visited the 1985 edition of the Art Cologne fair, where dealers trotted out monumental works and placed them inside a factory setting, Krens imagined he could do something similar.
Officials had other plans in mind, including one to build a prison, but Krens persisted with his vision. “It’s not about the space, it’s just about space,” he says in Museum Town, which carefully plots all the adversity that he and founding director Joe Thompson faced along the way.
As construction came to a close in the mid-’90s, the first presentations began to be mounted in the not-yet-fully-opened space. In 1996, David Byrne, frontman of the Talking Heads, staged a wacky installation that involved, in part, a sound element with lewd rap lyrics voiced by pleasant-sounding elderly women. When it came to obtaining additional funding for opening the museum, Bill Weld, the conservative governor of Massachusetts at the time, stopped by—and, much to everyone’s surprise, approved of what he saw, mainly on the basis that it was by a Talking Heads member who could sing “Air” on command. “Who would have ever guessed that a Republican governor in Massachusetts would be a Talking Heads fan?” Byrne says.
Since MASS MoCA’s opening in 1999, all kinds of memorable works have been mounted there. A survey of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings drew crowds and acclaim from critics. James Turrell created a giant environment that allows viewers to walk into what feel like never-ending spaces tinged green and pink by lighting effects. Robert Rauschenberg created a painting that stretches on for a quarter-mile. Cai Guo-Qiang exhibited a grouping of cars speared with lighting tubes, partly as a comment on 9/11. More recently, Nick Cave, who appears throughout Museum Town, crafted a giant sculptural installation involving 16,000 wind spinners and thousands of trinkets, and Alex Da Corte loaded a massive gallery with mod furniture and neon lights.
There has been the occasional disaster at MASS MoCA, and wisely, a good deal of Museum Town is spent on a 2007 Christoph Büchel installation that only partly made it on view. Titled Training Ground for Democracy, it featured an oil tanker, a police car, a carnival ride, and other wreckage—but, due to the skyrocketing costs associated with showing it, the work never ended up including an airliner that was intended to be shown in the galleries. The partial work was put on view anyway, and a legal spat ensued between the museum and the artist. New York Times critic Roberta Smith memorably called it a “depressing spectacle.”
MASS MoCA is an epic space, and Trainer’s film befits it. She’s enlisted top-tier talent: Meryl Streep is brought in to read Büchel’s emails via voiceover; Kirsten Johnson, an acclaimed cinematographer, lenses some memorable footage; and there are interviews with high-ranking politicians and blue-chip artists sprinkled throughout. But all this gloss cannot mask the fact that the film sometimes feels retrograde, like a relic of a different time when it seemed, for some, that the fullest way of representing an institution’s significance was to explore mainly what happened within its walls.
To some extent, this is not Trainer’s fault—Museum Town was completed in 2019, before a pandemic and a global movement for the recognition of structural racism began to shift the conversations around how museums should function. That means that there’s little accounting for the fact that, in recent months, MASS MoCA has faced a period of tumult. Shortly after the pandemic began, the museum said it would lay off more than 70 percent of its employees and that it stood to lose $55.7 million in 2020. A few months afterward, Thompson, who has directed the museum for 32 years, said he would retire. (He currently faces a charge of vehicular homicide that took place in 2018, to which he has pleaded not guilty.)
Museum Town—an engrossing intro to MASS MoCA for the uninitiated—nods to the various criticisms the institution continues to face. Trainer, who formerly served as director of development and public relations there, does pay mind to the fact that some locals are still concerned about MASS MoCA’s relationship with its community. When Wilco recently performed at MASS MoCA, locals scrawled messages outside the museum urging the band to go home. But Trainer’s film doesn’t delve into the social factors that may have caused locals to protest this performance and other events like it.
These days, there is a growing sense that institutions must reconcile what takes place within museum walls with what happens outside them, both in their local communities and in the world at large. In Museum Town, Krens recalls that the Minimalists “had to confront the limitations of the box.” The ideal MASS MoCA documentary would do the same.