A SHORT STORY

A short story

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The Rise And Fall And Rise Again Of Jerry Beck And His Revolving Museum

by Greg Cook 
 
“This body of work was about being alone in the studio and writing and trying to survive,” Jerry Beck told me when I met him recently at his exhibition “RPM (Revolutions Per Minute),” at the Clark Gallery in Lincoln through Aug. 30.
 
For two and a half decades, the 56-year-old had been organizing buoyant community projects that filled vacant lots and city parks around Boston and later Lowell with visionary, carnivalesque art under the banner of his Revolving Museum. The museum began as an occasional, itinerant enterprise in the early 1980s, but became an actual place when it occupied a building in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood in the 1990s and moved to Lowell in the 2000s.
 
But in 2009, Beck left his museum—or some would argue was pushed out. He had created an amazing operation that excited and inspired people—and him. But the stress of maintaining it, of managing people, of raising money, of being a new dad, of being an artist himself, of supporting the hopes of so many people became too much. He didn’t necessarily deal with it well—people complained of tensions among the museum’s staff. He was burned out. His marriage was faltering.

“Do you know how heartbroken I was?” Beck says. “My identity as an artist was so enmeshed with the Revolving Museum’s history that when I let go of it, basically I felt I lost my identity. It’s a form of death for some. I had a break down. It’s a good thing I had a very good therapist. It’s a good thing I had my daughter. I could focus my love on her.”

When he and his wife tried shortly thereafter to sell the museum building—they lived in an apartment upstairs—postcards and stickers circulated in Lowell accusing him of being a carpetbagger, of taking government money to develop the museum there, but personally wanting to get out of the city.

“I couldn’t go outside, I had so much shame,” Beck recalls. “I’m in Lowell. I feel like I’ve disappointed the whole city. I was going to be in Lowell forever. But the pain and the depression. You’re depressed. You can’t do anything.”

So Jerry Beck retreated into his studio—first in the empty space that had been the home of the Revolving Museum (it had moved to Lowell’s Western Avenue Studios and then 290 Jackson St. before closing due to a lack of funds in 2012), then in Fitchburg where he moved while his wife stayed behind. He’d been making sculptures and installations for years, but he focused on drawing—something he’d rarely done—and writing.

Now the Clark Gallery walls are filled with these drawings of cowboy boots, sports cars, houses, rockets, himself, and lots of Native Americans with braided hair (an apparent legacy of growing up near a Seminole reservation). Sculptures include a black trenchcoat covered with actual shells, an 8-foot-long revolver fashioned out of corks, and outfits for a family of three constructed out of old work timecards. In one corner stands a 2-foot-tall figure assembled out of wood and automated so that its arm continually saws off the back of a model train. Hanging above one door is a pair of boots cut out of flat wood and carved with slogans like “Paradise exists but mosquitoes got there first.”

It’s a handsome collection of art mixing folk and visionary styles. Sitting outside the gallery reminiscing, Beck shared some news. He’d recently regained control of the Revolving Museum nonprofit. His eyes twinkled with the possibilities.

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The interior of one of the railway cars from 1984’s “The Little Train That Could … Show.” (Courtesy)

The museum as the community
Jerry Beck grew up in Florida, just north of Miami, in Broward County. His parents were teachers. In summers, his father managed an uncle’s penny arcade. Development was booming there during his childhood.

“We would go wandering in our backyards, in the woods, the true swamps in Florida, and we would find abandoned spaces back there. We found a ghost town,” Beck says. “When you’re a kid and you discover those kinds of places you feel like you’ve discovered treasure. So what do we do? We go back there and build installations. You bring chalk and you build forts, you make theatrical presentations.”

He went on to study art at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he drew inspiration from the anti-materialist revolutionary spirit of punk rock and fell under the spell of an artist-in-residence by the name of Allen Ruppersberg. In 1971, the California artist filled a Los Angeles house with installations and operated it for a month as a fully functional hotel.

“When I saw that that shifted my attention away from object-making,” Beck says. “It linked up to everything I loved most about my childhood.”

Beck moved to Boston in the early 1980s to do graduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. His central project involved creating junk art installations in a vacant lot, but he says his teachers didn’t seem much interested in adventuring out to see it.

“A few people didn’t want me to do the work I was interested in,” he says, “and I decided to drop out of grad school. At that time I didn’t feel supported in the work I was doing.” (He says he returned to school a decade later and finished his degree.)

Instead Beck made a splash by rounding up some 20 artists to fill a dozen abandoned train cars off Northern Avenue in Boston with melted figures, photos and other installations in 1984. They called it “The Little Train That Could … Show.” It was the first big project of what would come to be called the Revolving Museum.

One Revolving Museum project involved performers “capturing” the audience and taking it to explore installations within the old fort on Georges Island in Boston Harbor. Other projects included a book gallery that you walked into and a moving van with wings that projected films and music. The Museum worked with neighborhood kids to create an arty baseball batting cage, pitching booth, and souvenir stand—that addressed racism, violence and global warming—at Roxbury’s Carter Playground in the late 1980s.

“The whole concept for me was a way to involve artists and creative people and to erase the boundaries between who’s creative and who’s not,” Beck says. He aimed to bring together artists and poets and musicians for a “multidisciplinary experience … a dialogue of inclusiveness with equality.”

In 1995, the Revolving Museum found a long-term home when it moved into an old wallpaper factory on A Street in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood. Beck says it offered 50 studios, a darkroom, a theater, a printmaking studio and three galleries in space all donated by the property’s owner. Beck became consumed by his role as founder, director, curator, fundraiser and all-purpose impresario running the space for eight years and registering the growing institution as a nonprofit.

“It was never about the art world,” Beck says. “To me, it was just about making my own work the way I wanted to. … That’s all I’ve been trying to do my whole life, is find a community that shared the same values.”

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Jerry Beck performing at the Revolving Museum’s Hamilton Mills Ruin Project in 2007. (Bob Pare)

Trying to do it all
In 2002, the Revolving Museum was faced with finding new headquarters when the owner of its Fort Point building, which had continued to let the museum use the space for free, decided to redevelop the property.

Lynn; Lawrence; Brattleboro, Vermont; and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, reached out, but Lowell successfully recruited the Revolving Museum. City leaders’ invited Beck to be part of their project to revitalize the city’s core by making it a cultural hub.

Beck and his wife Jamie bought the old Lowell Gas and Light Company building on Shattuck Street that would house the museum for $410,000 with help from a $75,000 no-interest loan from the city. “At that time they were giving money to artists to move to downtown,” Beck recalls.

The couple lived up stairs (plus a daughter Georgie after she was born in 2006), while downstairs the Revolving Museum offered youth programs, produced murals, put on exhibitions of puppets, suspended giant dresses over Lowell canals, and built giant heads and tape monsters and robots.

The museum’s annual budgets ballooned to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Beck grew frustrated with the demands of administration and of negotiating his vision with his board. “Most of my energy and time was going toward fundraising,” Beck says. “It became a monster.”

By 2009, it had become a crisis and Beck left his museum. “It got to the point that Jerry wanted to move onto something else. Most of us on the board were recruited by Jerry. It was never quite clear why Jerry left,” says Charles Stolper, a financial consultant who served on the board of the Revolving Museum. “Jerry was the pied piper of the whole operation. He could raise money. Nobody on the board was particularly good at raising money.”

“I was trying to do it all,” Beck says. “I thought I had unlimited energy. I thought I could do this because so many people were happy. It was truly a renaissance. We did over a hundred pieces of public art in Lowell involving thousands of people. … When you see 500 people making a public sculpture that’s two blocks long, with recycled materials, and parents, that makes you happy.”

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This automated sculpture “Your Birthday Answered My Question” at the Clark Gallery is in part, Jerry Beck says, about his desire to top—or at least live down—the celebrated show he organized in abandoned train cars in 1984, the show that he considers the founding of the Revolving Museum. “That’s about trying to saw that train show out of my brain,” Beck says. (Greg Cook)

A different person now
“Creative activity is one of the most healing things you can do in your life,” Beck tells me as we sit outside his Clark Gallery exhibition on a recent sunny morning. “It’s in the realm of dreams. It’s about letting go your intellectual, your control, your expectations, your family. To me, the creative process is akin to walking or meditating. … It leads you to freedom. To me, art is about illuminating the unknown. How are we going to illuminate the unknown? By letting go.”

After leaving the Revolving Museum, Beck drew and wrote and sculpted. He separated from his wife four years ago and they’re getting a divorce. He became marketing and community engagement director for the Fitchburg Art Museum from 2011 to ’13. In December, he was hired to be economic development director for the city of Fitchburg—though from early on some city councilors criticized the way the Mayor Lisa Wong managed the hiring process and in June the council eliminated the position.

And the Revolving Museum reentered Beck’s life. “The deal was if the Revolving Museum ceased to function, it would revert to him,” Stolper says. So sometime around last fall, as the remaining board members were resolving various outstanding debts and winding down what was left, he says, “We called Jerry. ‘You want it back?’ And Jerry said, ‘Yeah, I would like it back.’”

The Revolving Museum, Stolper says, “it’s Jerry. It’s his. I don’t know if it could exist without him.”

“I’ve been very passive about the Revolving Museum. I’m at a different speed,” Beck says. “I’m a different person now. Hopefully I’ve learned some key lessons—patience, fully understanding the role people play in the museum, and designating those roles in the museum.”

“Right now,” Beck tells me, “I’m planning our first show called ‘Destiny Rides Again’ and I’m going to bring the Revolving Museum back to life. Isn’t that incredible?”

Greg Cook is co-founder of WBUR’s ARTery. Follow him on Twitter @AestheticResear and be his true friend on Facebook.

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“’The Cowboy Boot Series’ is me dealing with an icon that I still believe is a seminal image that identifies American culture,” Jerry Beck says. “I tried to use that, to start with a simple outline of a boot. I bought all these books off of eBay. I tried to set this up as a map and let my creative process happen.” (Courtesy)

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Jerry Beck’s idea for “Time Card Family” (in the background at the Clark Gallery, with “Wheels of Wonder” in the foreground) was to honor working class folks. “I’ve been collecting time cards for 20 years because I hated my first job,” he says. “I hated using time cards. I was a furniture mover. I was 15.” (Greg Cook)

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“I’m trying to teach myself to carve and work with wood,” Beck says of this wood piece at the Clark Gallery. “I’ve been writing three-line poems. They’re not haikus. I’m trying to get an image or my philosophy. And I’m trying to use an economy of words to capture a meaningful moment or a meaningful theme or something funny.” (Greg Cook)