A woman’s dead husband, whose powdery face streches six feet wide, smiles eerily from the corner of the room, broken light bulbs emphasizing the folds of his puffy disco cap. The portrait is too heavy to hang on the museum wall, so it simply rests against it, waiting patiently for the next unsuspecting passerby (in this case, myself). There’s no getting around it: this painting is bad--bad enough to warrant a confused double-take by any onlooker, never mind conventional museum goers. However this painting, aptly titled “Man in a Puffy Disco Hat,” hangs not in a foyer or over a dinner table, but on the wall of the Museum of Bad Art.
While some of the museum’s pieces have evidence of artistic talent—deft brush technique, attention to detail, innovative use of color—there is something off the mark about every work in the museum’s collection. “Our definition of ‘bad art’ is pieces that cannot be ignored but will never make it into a traditional museum;” says Louise Sacco, Director of MoBA. “It’s something that is compelling but you can see there’s something that went wrong there.” Looking at a painting of a tree with massive eyes for leaves and bulging breasts coming out of the trunk, I could see Sacco’s point.
Identifying bad art is a matter of gut instinct, according to JamesHallowell, self-proclaimed bad-art connoisseur and long-time supporter of the museum. He has a very simple definition of bad art. “Bad art to me is very different from just lousy or boring art,” he says. “Bad art is not just badly done art; you have to look at it and go, ‘What the fuck?!’” There is no need to scrutinize and analyze what precisely makes the art so bad; the answer becomes clear walking into the museum. In a world where art is easily over-thought, MoBA stands out for its accessibility to visitors.
Similar to the pieces it exhibits, MoBA began by accident. but with good intentions. On a night in the early 90s, Scott Wilson, antiques dealer and former curator of MoBA, was looking through trash for salvageable antiques when he found an awful painting. He figured he could reuse the frame, but Sacco’s brother, Jerry Reilly, insisted that Wilson give the piece to him to hang in his basement. This led to a sea of friends donating their cherished eyesores until it culminated in a celebration, in jest, of ‘the opening of the Museum of Bad Art.’ Through word-of-mouth, 200 guests attended the opening in the basement brimming over with atrocities.“
He had the museum in his house for probably two years,” Sacco says. “The day a bus load of seniors from Rhode Island showed up at his house, we knew we had to change it.” And thus MoBA moved to the Dedham Community Theatre and has since grown to three galleries in the Boston area: one in Brookline, one in Dedham, and one in Somerville.
What started as a joke between friends soon grew to be a world-renowned collection. “We’ve been featured in Wired; The Rolling Stone; the London Times; the Bulgarian version of Playboy, every in-flight magazine, even ones I’d never heard of. We’ve had a T.V. crew with Katie Couric turn up, we’ve been on Indonesian radio… It just goes on and on,” Sacco says.
Despite the extent of their media attention, MoBA is still very much a mom-and-pop gallery that cares about its local supporters. “It’s really interesting: by some measures, it’s been enormously popular,” Sacco says, sitting with me in a sleepy, Davis Square café. “We have a big mailing list, thousands of followers on Facebook. But ask the next people walking down the street,” she says, gesturing out the window with her mug of coffee, “and maybe one will have heard of us.” Though the museum has earned Katie Couric’s attention, the institution maintains a low profile in the neighborhood.
ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS
The museum has exhibitions all over the country and receives art from all over the world. When MoBA started before the digital age, it would receive anonymous submissions—some of which would have a future in the gallery—rather than emailed photos from fans. Now, pieces are usually pre-approved by the museum’s curator, Michael Frank. I was at his house to witness the welcome arrival of such a piece.
“It’s like Christmas,” Frank says, bringing over a large, brown-colored box to his dining room table. He looks at the return address and ponders for a moment. “Rochester, NY. Hmm… I think I know who this is from.” Carefully slicing the bubble wrap with an X-Acto knife, he studies the art piece. He uses the same scrutiny any curator would use in examining a historical masterpiece even though the painting in question is a reddish-orange scene of cartoon-eyed spiders dropping from the sky, preying on ant-covered peaches with giant droplets of juice dripping from the fruit. “It’s on the border,” Frank says. By that he means that it’s not quite bad enough.
“People send us things for the same reason we collected them,” Sacco says. “They know it’s not good. Maybe they hang it up in the dining room and their family yells at them, but it’s so compelling, engaging, exciting that they don’t want it to disappear.” The museum serves as a refuge for this orphaned art, provided it meets a certain level of repulsiveness. “We have been very clear in our mission and that is to collect, exhibit and celebrate the worst of the art world,” Sacco says. “In our world, [art] has to do with things that are sincere, things that are trying to communicate something. We think art is something that looks for an audience.” MoBA is perhaps the only place these unappreciated artworks can fulfill their purpose; to be seen and enjoyed.
It may seem odd that artists would send in their artwork to the museum, acknowledging that this time, their artistic endeavor was less than successful. And what about the artists whose work is simply found in a thrift store and displayed, unbeknownst to them? Is it not a bit offensive?
Sacco acknowledges this concern. “That was a big worry for us at the start. We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Then artists started to send in their own work, which was puzzling. But when you think about it, an artist can’t lose: if we turn them down they say, ‘Okay, I’m not that bad,’ and if we accept them they can say, ‘I’m in a museum,’” Sacco says. She estimates that as many as 20 pieces in the museum’s collection have been donated by professional artists.