A Museum for the Working Class

A Museum for the Working Class

The Fall River Museum of Contemporary Art offers a place for working-class art without tokenizing or empty gestures of representation.

Detail from Fall River Study no. 1 by Isaiah Raines (courtesy of the artist)

Hulking granite mills tower over the city of Fall River, some fifty miles south of Boston, as a lingering reminder of its industrial history. The weathered buildings were infamous for cruel labor conditions back when Fall River led the country in cloth production. The Fall River Museum of Contemporary Art has occupied the ground floor of one such mill, which still operates as a textiles manufacturer; with factory workers sewing upstairs, it’s an unlikely place for an art museum. That’s exactly why it’s there. 

When I first visited in the fall of 2021, I parked next to the VFW hall beside FR MoCA and met with its founders, Brittni Ann Harvey and Harry Gould Harvey IV. The couple, who are in their early thirties, met as teenagers attending punk shows at that same VFW. Now their art is exhibited at prestigious galleries in New York, but they hold ambivalent feelings about this prestige—and its associated social mobility. So they choose to live and work in Fall River, close to their families. The museum, which opened in 2020, exists in the hatchway the artists have carved out for themselves between the art world and home. 

The Harveys might have named their non-collecting art nonprofit the “Fall River Gallery,” but “museum” conveys institutional heft. Plus, the word hints at how, through their curation, they playfully subvert the traditional gatekeeping of the art world. Conceived as a “museum,” FR MoCA reveals where typical art institutions fall short.

Art museums, while ostensibly for the public, cater to the tastes of the wealthy, especially major donors with sway over programming and exhibited work. Operating at a small scale, FR MoCA, modestly funded with state art grants and support from local businesses—including the owner of a Portuguese food emporium across the street—has a grassroots ethos. The project demonstrates that art is not exclusive to the sons and daughters of capital; artists and art workers come from communities like Fall River, too. And their work has context and history. Art has long existed here, the Harveys are quick to point out, citing as an example the mill worker and artist Robert Spear Dunning, who began the Fall River school of still-life painting. 

When I first visited the museum, there were photographs, boiler inspection tools, and souvenirs from the Fall River Line steamboat company on display in the hallway entrance. On loan from the maritime museum, the artifacts highlighted the disparities between the lives of the workers below the decks and the Gilded Age robber barons who would ride between their residences in Newport, Rhode Island, and Manhattan. Inside the exhib...