LOWELL -- It is only half-jokingly that Jerry Beck refers to himself as ``damaged goods" because he went to art school. As a result, he says, he will never be able to produce true folk art, a form he reveres.
In keeping with his ironic take on culture, Beck, 48, refers to the Revolving Museum, the space he helped create for community artists, as an ``un-museum." It is a museum, in the sense that objects are on display. It is not, in the sense that the boundaries of what is worth beholding are expansive.
You get a sense of the irrepressibility of the human spirit as you round the corner from Merrimack Street onto Shattuck Street. The Lowell Gas Light Co. erected the corner two-story, red-brick building with an obtuse angle in 1859. With its rounded door on the corner, attractive roof, and courtyard, the building is nice enough on its own.
The thing is, there's so much weird and wonderful stuff spilling out in every direction that you can't help but be drawn in. Who can look away from an archway in the form of a pair of white hands moving toward a clasp? Never mind the leopard-skin cuffs and the huge head beyond. Its angular features are plastered with primary colors and more leopard skin. And it's not just the museum. The young artists Beck hangs out with have fanned out, planting public art around the neighborhood.
Being drawn into the Revolving Museum is doubly easy now that it's done away with the nominal admission fee.
``I had wanted to do that from the beginning," said Beck. His board took some persuading, but the change, instituted with the current exhibit on puppetry that runs through the end of September, has tripled attendance, according to Beck .
The puppets themselves are great. There's a room-sized red fox hanging from the ceiling practically inviting kids to get underneath it and grab the controls. Artists like Big Nazo (www.bignazo.com) are represented, as is a student who made a marionette of a man with the Stars and Stripes for underwear and a head buried in a TV set.
A cradle of the Industrial Revolution, Lowell grew up around the factories and the all-important canal system. Beck now sees the city as a cradle of the ``creative revolution." Living in an apartment above the gallery space with his wife and young child, Beck is among those reclaiming the city center. He lives and works among larger museums dedicated to preserving and explaining Lowell's history.
The Revolving Museum is a Boston refugee, having been squeezed out of the Fort Point Channel neighborhood before landing in Lowell in 2002.
Beck was a guard at the Museum of Fine Arts for two years during his student days. He bristles at the way he sees most museums using cultural artifacts to reinforce unequal power structures and elite dominance by in effect defining what is and is not worthy. ``And I never heard anyone laugh out loud there," said Beck.
At the Revolving Museum the goal is not for objects to be the center of attention. ``It's all about creativity," said Beck . ``W e are kind of pushing the boundaries of what a museum is."
Contact Eric Goldscheider, a freelance writer in Amherst, at email@example.com.