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Weekender Recommendations: Stream ‘Museum Town’ Documentary

by Juliana Roth

With estimates of close to 100,000 businesses closing as a result of the pandemic and lack of government support, many communities will be faced with the question small town North Adams, MA was asked when MASS MoCA first came to town: What do we do with our abandoned spaces?

Museum Town, a new documentary, offers a hopeful narrative for the role of artists in economic recovery by detailing the birth of one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world. The film begins streaming with Rivertown Film Society on December 25th. Rivertown will partner with the Arts Council of Rockland to screen the film to deepen these local connections alongside their week-long replay of Rockland in Motion, a short film series featuring filmmakers with roots in Rockland County. Post-screening discussions with the filmmakers were held earlier this year on everything from dance to native land rights to improvisation. Local best-selling author Nana Kwame-Adjei Brenyah and local musician Travis Stever of the band Coheed & Cambria led these recorded conversations, which will be available on their YouTube Channel.

Showing these film programs together provides an opportunity for Rivertown Film Society’s audience to consider how we support our local artists, and who those artists are. Academy Award winning actress Meryl Streep, whose partner is American sculptor Don Gummer, narrates Museum Town. Throughout the film, Nick Cave builds a politically engaged installation “Until,” but, like with all art, it is unclear if those affected by gun violence, racism, and the American Dream will see the art, a question that plagues many artists who might see their work as a conspirator in changing culture. This moment asks us: Does art need to perform a measurable function in order to justify its existence or is there something larger at work when we create?

Alongside Cave, the film features appearances by James Turrell, Laurie Anderson, and David Byrne. The music is scored by John Stirratt of Wilco, a band famously loyal to their native city of Chicago and investing in its local musicians.

“MASS MoCA was a preposterous idea and it was really difficult to do. When we started, we didn’t own the buildings, we didn’t have any art, and we didn’t have any constituency. It was such a wild story and such a rollercoaster ride,” says film director Jennifer Trainer, one of MASS MoCA’s early founders and it’s second employee. “The whole story was so unlikely and I realized about halfway through that very rarely in your life—if you’re lucky—do you get the chance to work on something that’s so big and has such an unlikely chance of succeeding.”

The narrative of MASS MoCA’s development parallels how our local Nyack museum, the Edward Hopper House, came to be. Led by Win Perry, the restoration of Hopper’s childhood home first began as an effort to save a decaying historic building. Similar questions and themes consider in the creation of MASS MoCA surrounded the development of Garner Arts.

Rivertown Film Society and the Arts Council of Rockland will host RoCA’s director, Cheryl Braun, as moderator for a virtual discussion with local arts organizations in January around how Rockland County might consider their relationship with the arts. As our community finds its bearings post-election in the midst of the inequitable fallout of the pandemic, this conversation will touch on key issues for stakeholders. Is it possible artists might be seen as drivers of economic recovery? How can we all contribute to a broader and more inclusive imagination of what’s possible?

None of these questions have an easy answer, so it’s a good thing artists and art advocates will be involved in driving these conversations. They often are pretty good at handling complexity.

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