LOWELL — It’s hard to believe, but Jerry Beck learned about the demise of the Revolving Museum when he picked up the local newspaper.
By that point, the artist and organizer wasn’t even on speaking terms with the institution he had founded in 1984. He had helped transform the alternative art collective into a $500,000-a-year nonprofit organization and, in 2002, led a celebrated move of the Revolving Museum from Fort Point to Lowell.
“There’s a sadness,” Beck says, “but I try not to focus on things that are going to depress me. If you live in the past, you can’t move on.”
The Revolving Museum, known for unpredictable art installations that were as likely to show up in an underappreciated public space as an art gallery, closed last month after running out of money.
Beck admits he’s disappointed. The Revolving Museum didn’t just host art shows, create public murals, and organize programs for local teenagers. Lowell officials recruited his museum to spark a wave of cultural life in this gritty former mill town.
And as boxes of art supplies and paperwork were hauled out of the museum’s final home last month, Beck’s dream became just another nonprofit casualty. A decade after its celebrated move, the Revolving Museum now represents what can happen when a scrappy grass-roots group goes legit without enough planning or money.
“It’s so complicated, and there’s plenty of blame to go around,” says William Turville, an Arlington architect who served as the co-chair of the museum’s board and was the only trustee to vote against the shutdown. “There should have been some way to salvage the good parts of the museum. And nobody was creative enough or had deep enough pockets, and everybody was burned out. It should not have happened.”
They called it a museum from the start, but in many ways, it wasn’t a museum at all. In conception, this was a club of renegade artists, many of them just out of school, eager to create work in the abandoned and underused spaces spotted by Beck around Boston.
He was a Florida native and artist — creating drawings, writing poetry, and mounting installations — who came North to study at Tufts University and, in the early 1980s, started a gallery on Kingston Street in Boston. Beck closed it, he said at the time, to avoid having a “regular, regimented gallery.”
A carnival barker. A P.T. Barnum of the art world. These were terms used to describe Beck in those days. The first Revolving Museum exhibition opened in the fall of 1984. “The Little Train That Could … Show” took place with artists creating wild installations in a dozen abandoned railroad cars just off Northern Avenue. A later site-specific installation was designed so that visitors stepping off a ferry at Georges Island would be lassoed by performers dressed as prison guards.
The shows continued — held in a variety of locations, as the organization’s name suggested — until 1995, when Beck was given control of an old former wallpaper factory building in Fort Point. He created a revenue stream and community by renting space to artists and registered the Revolving Museum as a nonprofit.
Finding a home didn’t keep Beck and company indoors. In the summer of 1996, he and a group of artists started traveling around Boston in the I Scream Art Truck, a kind of mobile art circus in a converted ice-cream truck.
Then in 2002, the landlord decided to redevelop the Fort Point factory building. The Revolving Museum needed a new home. Several cities reached out to Beck, but Lowell was the most aggressive.
The city had created a downtown art district. Now it needed artists. City leaders recruited Beck and found him a building on Shattuck Street in the heart of Lowell. Because the museum had no money, city leaders offered Jerry and his wife, Jamie, a $75,000 no-interest loan. The Becks borrowed large sums from relatives, friends, and art patrons. They closed on the space for $410,000.
“Being able to land Jerry and the Revolving Museum was a huge win for us,” says then-city manager John Cox. “He brought us credibility in a lot of ways. He was one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders for the cultural community, and it lent legitimacy to what we were doing.”
The feeling was mutual.
In a thank you letter to Cox that first summer of 2002, Beck called Lowell “one of the most inspiring cities in America.”
‘Like a wonderland’
The early days were inspiring. There were gallery shows, a film festival, and, with the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a public art series. Before long, Lowell leaders claimed that close to 100 artists had moved into town.
That included Diana Coluntino, a Revolving Museum artist who had made the Becks their wedding rings when they were married in 1998.
“Lowell was kind of like a wonderland,” says Coluntino. “I found an apartment and didn’t have to leave a down payment or a security deposit. And at the time, Jerry loved the building. My feeling was: This is a real home.”
By 2004, Coluntino was the Revolving Museum’s youth-program coordinator. In 2008, she became artistic director.
In Boston, the organization had done intermittent programs with teenagers. In Lowell, the Revolving Museum launched an ambitious series of after-school programs that served about 60 teenagers at a time. They had a mural crew, classes on break dancing, and a fashion program.
In 2005, Lowell provided $40,000 to renovate the first floor of the building, which meant the space could be rented out more for income-generating parties and weddings. In 2007, the Massachusetts Cultural Council named the museum a winner of its Commonwealth Award. That year, the Revolving Museum’s budget reached $491,046, with sizable contributions from UMass Lowell, the Swanee Hunt Family Foundation, and the MCC.
To the outside world, everything seemed to be humming. But on Shattuck Street, problems were brewing. Jerry Beck, the man singularly identified with the Revolving Museum, was having doubts.
Several pressures were mounting. In the summer of 2006, the Becks had their first child. In theory, Beck had liked the idea of his girl growing up around a thriving arts organization. In reality, he found it hard.
The loud parties created tension to the point that the Becks, who lived on the second floor above the museum, put a clause in the lease limiting those events. This, in turn, frustrated his colleagues, who had begun to depend on rental revenue for the budget. Beck also found that he had to balance fatherhood and the growing responsibilities of what had become a legitimate nonprofit, of which he was the top administrator, chief curator, unofficial publicist, and city liaison.
He had stopped making art for the first time in his life and missed the quiet studio time that helped him recharge. Frustrated, Beck rented a space nearby and, for a week, showed up religiously before 5 a.m. Then his schedule got too tight.
“I started to burn out,” says Beck today. “I started to realize the Revolving Museum became almost like a monster that was devouring all my energy. This was a great institution, but in some ways, I had fallen into my own trap.”
He would phase himself out of the money side, he decided, and hire a proper executive director to handle fund-raising. But the Revolving Museum’s first two choices fell through. The third, Vickie Hu Poirier, a textile artist from New Mexico, lasted just eight months in 2008.
Diane Testa, who had started in 2004 as an office administrator, ended up with the executive director post, a job she today says she took only because “they had nobody else.”
Beck wasn’t the only one with problems. To some of his colleagues, he had become almost impossible to work with, Testa says. He could be temperamental, and he didn’t like some of the bureaucratic rules that came with many grants, she says. With the increased tension, Beck stopped coming into the office. Testa decided to deal only with the board.
“It became a strain for everybody,” says Testa, who left in early 2011 largely out of exhaustion. “Jerry would make our gallery director cry. He alienated board members and the community. He loved chaos. He wasn’t made to run a business.”
The organization’s board had a consultant come in and try to repair the relationships. It didn’t work. In January 2009, the Revolving Museum issued a press release noting that Beck had decided to step down to focus on his art and would remain “a creative and artistic presence” as a member of the museum’s advisory board. In reality, Jamie Beck says, Jerry Beck “got pushed out.”
She blames Testa for turning the remaining museum staff and new board members against him, a process that she believes eventually led to the organization’s demise.
What was most painful, Jamie Beck says, is the response in 2009 when the Becks announced they were going to sell the Shattuck Street building. They couldn’t live above the museum anymore and were broke from paying their mortgage, she says.
The $1.1 million listing price, in particular, angered many. It meant the Revolving Museum, which couldn’t afford to buy the building, would have to move. It also made some members of the community accuse the Becks of taking advantage of their no-interest loan and the public support over the years.
That’s how Lenny Hall saw it. The artist, who moved into Lowell in 1977, already resented Beck’s penchant for seeking attention.
One day, Hall created a mock postcard with Beck’s face on the front.
“I know I paid $410,000 for this building and got a huge community development block grant from the city but I’ve got to get out of Lowell and move my family to a decent area,” read the message purported to come from Beck. “All I need [is] $1.1 million to do it.”
Some postcards were sprinkled around Western Avenue Studios, where Hall rented space and the Revolving Museum moved briefly after leaving Shattuck Street. Other artists turned the postcards into stickers and plastered them downtown. That’s where Beck saw the image when he was walking his 3-year-old daughter one morning.
Jamie Beck couldn’t believe what was happening. Only a few years earlier, Beck had been considered an art-world hero bringing art and life to downtown Lowell. Now, he was a money-grubbing carpetbagger.
“I have to say, what we experienced when we moved to Lowell, it was a beautiful, beautiful time,” she says now. “I don’t regret any of that. The ending, those two years, with everyone turning on Jerry, was the most painful thing.”
One morning in late July, Diana Coluntino unlocked the door to the Revolving Museum’s space on Jackson Street for the last time. As a bulldozer cleared land across the street for the latest Lowell factory renovation, Coluntino, the artistic director until the end, had cleaning to do.
The landlord was changing the locks on the space the museum started renting in 2010 after leaving Western Ave. She and one of the local teens in the program cleared the clothes racks and boxed up sculptures on the walls. With pride, Coluntino showed off the covered alleyway bordering the building, the wall covered in paint left over from mural work. The previous weekend, she had held a punk rock show in the alley, her way of saying goodbye.
Though she and the Becks were once close, she hasn’t talked to them in years. She won’t go into much detail, other than to say she remained at the museum, he didn’t. As early as last winter, she knew the museum was doomed.
Recent filings show the annual budget had fallen to $185,000 in the most recent year reported. Even the shrinking budgets came with deficits. Why?
“There was no fund-raising,” she says, admitting to being frustrated.
For now, she’s excited about a space around the corner that she’s rented to launch her own teen art programs. She’s going to start smaller and start fresh. Her new idea doesn’t even have a name yet. But she knows there’s a need. That’s the same reason Turville voted to stay open. With as little money as there is, the Revolving Museum’s after-school programs have been packed.
That’s why there is a chance the Revolving Museum could rise once more.
Charles Stolper, Turville’s co-chairman on the board, says a board member at the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts has been asked to work up a potential business plan to revive the organization with the Concord institution’s help. But he knows that’s a long shot.
In reality, he thinks the Revolving Museum just couldn’t make it without Beck.
“Jerry is a pied piper,” he says. “People wrote checks and or funded programs because of Jerry. And we’ve never had a pied piper since Jerry left. If we’d have found the right mix of people, it might have worked. But we never found the right mix.”
Beck sounds wistful but also detached when he talks about what happened in Lowell. One thing is clear: He didn’t make out like an art-world version of Donald Trump. The Shattuck Street building remained on the market until 2011. It eventually sold for $680,000. The Becks had to give Lowell back its $75,000 no-interest loan plus a percentage of the profit on the building sale. Then they paid back as many people as they could.
They still owe Beck’s mother more than $100,000, says Jamie Beck.
And she and Jerry didn’t move to a country estate with a sprawling yard. They separated. Jamie Beck rents an apartment in Lowell and works as a therapist. Jerry Beck bought a house in Fitchburg with a Federal Housing Administration loan that required he put down only $6,000 of his house’s $300,000 price. He works as director of marketing and community engagement for the Fitchburg Art Museum.
“I think I wanted to do everything,” Jerry Beck says today. “I remember thinking, we have to turn this into a multimillion-dollar institution. What other museums do community-based work, have a gallery space, have a youth space, do public art, have an art mobile?”
Earlier this summer, Beck stood on Main Street in Fitchburg, posing for a local newspaper in front of the 1,000 one-foot-square tiles he helped organize for a colorful display in the downtown. He’s asked if he would revive the Revolving Museum if given the chance.
“I’ll tell you, right now on the record, if it was given back to me, I would be happy to incubate it and continue to do the work, but I would do it in a different way. Truth of the matter is, the name doesn’t matter to me. Does the name make the art? No, it’s the people.”