Check out local museums that highlight the tiny, the bad, and the historic
The Friend Smithsonian Museum
Martha Friend is, by all definitions of the word, an artist. After retiring from full-time work a few years ago, she dove headfirst into full-time creativity. “I was just dying to do something big and creative,” she says.
That big and creative thing? A tiny museum. With help from a Somerville Arts Council grant, Friend commissioned the construction of a box that is 24 inches high, 36 inches wide, and 30 inches deep. It sits right on the front of her lawn on Highland Avenue.
Living on such a public street gave her the idea to create a tiny museum that anyone who walks by could check out. “I just thought it would be such a great addition to the cultural life of Somerville to have this changing exhibit that people could access by simply walking by.”
The museum hosts a rotating cast of exhibits made by her artist friends. Any form of three-dimensional artwork is welcome within the Friend Smithsonian Museum, as the tiny museum is known. Previous works include “Tiny Miny-City,” a collection made up of crumpled cityscapes printed on aluminum, forming their own tiny city, and an exhibition by Suzanne Lubeck that consisted of “an homage to the sea and to tiny boats.”
Throughout the winter, Friend’s sister exhibited a steampunk piece created using found metal and other materials. The exhibition featured an intricate forest landscape with various metal objects standing in as the trees. The museum’s size allows for a depth that gives viewers plenty to dissect and observe.
Friend’s creativity isn’t limited to the tiny museum—her entire house is fair game. “My living space is kind of a museum in itself. There’s really not a lot of room left in here to live,” she says with a laugh. Projects include Emerald City (a green glass piece in the backyard), Sapphire City (blue glass on the front porch), and Teapot Graveyard (a cast-off metal installation). Future plans include building Ruby City and expanding the rest of her projects.
Friend has found Somerville to be the perfect place to pursue all of her many artistic passions. “I’ve been here about 40 years. I’ve always found Somerville to be very accepting of eccentric creativity. You can paint your house a crazy color and nobody really objects.”
She thinks this ethos comes from the individuals that make up the community. “I find people very tolerant here, in the positive sense of the word. They appreciate things being a little off-center, so to speak.”
The Friend Smithsonian Museum is her way of giving back to this wide-open community. “I think the museum makes people happy,” Friend says. “People walk by and they look inside and it’s such a wonderful thing to stumble upon.”
The Friend Smithsonian Museum is located at 135 Highland Ave. It is lit 24 hours a day. For more information on Martha Friend, visit marthafriend.com.
Museum of Bad Art
Tucked away in the basement of the Somerville Theatre is a museum that explores the outer edges of art. This isn’t the place to find masterpieces or envelope-pushing exhibitions. Instead, you’ll find art that confuses, confounds, and elicits belly laughs. This is the Museum of Bad Art.
MOBA has been operating in the Somerville Theatre for nearly two decades, and admission is included for free when you buy a movie ticket. But the museum got its start in 1993 when Scott Wilson, an arts and antiques dealer, found a painting in the trash. He liked the frame but not the artwork itself. The piece made its way to Jerry Reilly, a West Roxbury art enthusiast, who then, with the help of friends, began collecting the type of art that makes observers cock their heads. After an incredible turnout at a showcase of the growing collection, the Museum of Bad Art was born.
Louise Sacco, the permanent acting interim executive director of the museum, says MOBA’s relationship with Somerville has been fantastic.
“Somerville ended up as our primary location and we love it, it’s perfect,” she says. The theater’s location—only a few feet away from the Red Line—benefits MOBA by making it easily accessible. And being located between Tufts and Harvard opens the museum up to college students, Sacco says, who are a natural audience for this type of experience.
“The Somerville arts community involves a lot of unique, different, and imaginative people,” Sacco says. “They get us and they have welcomed us. I can’t think of anything negative we’ve heard from Somerville.”
The Museum of Bad Art showcases objectively bad art, but this isn’t some sort of cruel joke at the expense of amateur artists. On the contrary, as Sacco puts it, “We’re celebrating an artist’s right to fail.” What hangs on the wall of MOBA may be a misconstrued attempt at art, but if there’s no bad art, how can there ever be good art?
Somerville’s reputation as an artists’ haven might at first seem like a bad fit for a museum of bad art. But the city’s constant celebration of everyone’s right to make art has enabled the perfect partnership. “Somerville is probably the best town around to do this, in terms of a fit with other things that are going on in the community,” Sacco says.
Art might find its way into MOBA through the trash, a flea market, or even the donation of an artist aiming to give their works a platform they wouldn’t receive otherwise.
The original piece that put everything in motion, dubbed “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” depicts a woman sashaying through a field of daisies. The sky is an unnatural neon yellow, the proportions are all wrong, and the woman wears an expression not befitting someone skipping through a field of flowers. But, instead of merely being discarded and forgotten forever, the piece lives on in immortality.
The artworks MOBA displays gain a second life, and actually receive critical appraisal and attention. The creations at MOBA might not be ready for the Louvre, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be seen.
The Museum of Bad Art is located in the basement of the Somerville Theater at 55 Davis Square. A movie ticket gains you admission to MOBA, or a free pass to the museum can also be arranged by contacting MOBA at 781-444-6757. For more information, visit museumofbadart.org.
From laying out and implementing SomerVision to building a new high school, Somerville’s eyes are turned to the future and to advancement. But don’t forget: Somerville has been around a long time. Technically incorporated in 1842, the city has been running since 1630, initially as a part of Charlestown. And Somerville was hardly a bystander—the city was right in the thick of many important events in the country’s history.
It’s this desire to see Somerville’s rich history celebrated that has motivated Evelyn Battinelli for decades. She’s the executive director, secretary, and treasurer of the Somerville Museum. But Battinelli has been with the museum since before it was known as the Somerville Museum. She joined what was then called the Somerville Historical Society in 1973, and she’s been on board ever since, including when the society was reorganized as the Somerville Museum in 1988.
What drove her interest in the history of Somerville in the first place? “I joined because of Isabel Cheney,” she says. Cheney was a longtime civics teacher. “She was a wonderful teacher in the Somerville schools for many years. She continued afterward to represent and showcase the rich history of Somerville.”
Cheney’s passion for ensuring Somerville gets its due was contagious, especially when it came to early American history. “Our seal says 1842, but all of our history before that, all our participation in the Revolution, it doesn’t show up,” Battinelli says. She continues, with a clear desire for rightful recognition in her voice: “Somerville has a place in the warning of the British coming. It’s all those little things. It’s almost like we weren’t there, but we were.”
Somerville played a crucial role during the early stages of the Revolution, Battinelli says. The battles of Lexington and Concord put those two towns on the map, but much of the fighting happened on the retreat from those places. As the British made their way back east, they maneuvered down present-day Beech Street and Elm Street while militia members fired upon them. The history of modern America was made upon the streets of Somerville.
But the museum is not primarily concerned with artifacts. By hosting a wide variety of programs and exhibitions throughout the year, the museum uses art to create a unified vision of the City of Somerville, bringing together the past, present, and future through the work of artists.
The Somerville Museum’s mission, Battinelli says, is to “showcase the history, the art, and culture of the city.” The museum has hosted a range of programs including a historian’s presentation on the history of Prospect Hill, a photography exhibit on the working history of Union Square, and a panel discussion about the history of immigration and its effect on Somerville’s economy.
One of Battinelli’s favorite times of year is the Somerville Open Studios each spring, when the museum hosts workshops that give visitors the chance to see what artists are working on firsthand.
An upcoming exhibition that will run from Feb. 22 to April 7 highlights the work of mosaic artists from across New England. Over 60 artists will present contemporary creations made of modern materials, but the works use techniques that date back centuries.
Battinelli says she wants museum visitors to gain an appreciation of Somerville’s long history, diverse culture, and commitment to the arts. She loves being able to find so many different cultures and ideas within the city.
“We could travel the world in Somerville,” she says with a smile.
The Somerville Museum is located at 1 Westwood Rd. For more information, call 617-666-9810 or visit somervillemuseum.org.
This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
Like what you’re reading? Consider supporting Scout on Patreon!