The works of questionable merit on display at the Museum of Bad Art prove that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.PHOTOGRAPHY BY SEAN McCORMICK
TYPOGRAPHY BY LUCAS AREBALO
On a wall in the basement of a Dedham, Massachusetts, movie theater hangs a small painting illuminated from above by a single fluorescent light. It is a study in greens and browns, with shocking red and magenta highlights. The piece, an oil on canvas, is titled Mana Lisa. At 12 by 16 inches, it is smaller than the original Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece that inspired it, but it has a powerful -- if different -- effect nonetheless. The vivid green background looks practically radioactive, and the shading on the cross-gender subject’s skin makes her (or him) appear burned. You might think to yourself, This is … really bad.
And that’s precisely the point.
Whereas in the past, museum walls have been reserved exclusively for the work of the greats, the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) extends an opportunity to less-than-stellar works and artists. Founded in 1993 in the basement of a West Roxbury, Massachusetts, home, it was moved the following year to the basement of the nearby Dedham Community Theatre, within earshot of the men’s room, and it remains there today. The one-of-a-kind museum houses a collection that ranges, according to its website, “from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”
But what makes a work of art good or bad -- or merely incompetent? That’s the question raised here, and it’s certainly a fair one. Though the staff never attempts an explicit answer, the issue is a topic of much discussion. Louise Reilly Sacco is a founding member and the permanent acting interim executive director of MOBA (she blames the title on too much Champagne). She says, “If there’s no such thing as bad art, then there’s no such thing as good art either.”
MOBA’s collection of more than 400 paintings and a few sculptures has come from yard sales, thrift shops, curbside trash piles, and generous donations. Curator-in-chief Michael Frank finds many of the works himself, but as the museum’s reputation has grown, so, too, has the number of donations. Not everything can make the cut, however; some pieces are simply too bad -- or are they not bad enough? -- for exhibition. Donated pieces that aren’t accepted into the collection are sold at auction with a certificate that reads, “Rejected from MOBA.”
So what leads to the dreaded rejection certificate? The staff at MOBA maintains strict curatorial standards, employing criteria that automatically eliminate some pieces from exhibition. “Not bad art” includes commercial or tourist art (e.g., something you might find on a cruise), kitsch (as in a painting on velvet or a paint-by-numbers canvas), and work by young children. Only if a piece surpasses those categories does it get the chance to be deemed as bad enough for display.
“Poor technique alone is not sufficient to qualify as bad art,” Frank says.
The museum has no docents and no paid staff. Instead, there is an enthusiastic core of volunteers who help hang changing exhibitions three times a year. Attendance figures are difficult to estimate, since admission is free. But based on movie-ticket sales, it’s possible that more than 400 people a month visit the museum, which is conveniently open during movie-theater hours.
In May of 2008, MOBA opened a second venue -- again, in a basement and within earshot of a men’s room -- at the Somerville Theatre near Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Visitors must buy a movie ticket to get into the Somerville location, unlike at the Dedham location.) The 1,000-square-foot space has doubled the museum’s exhibition capacity. Frank hopes to draw 1,000 visitors per month with works like the ironically iconic Eileen, an oil painting that was stolen in 1996 and remained missing for 10 years before it was returned. The museum posted a reward of $6.50, the most ever offered for a work of art in its permanent collection.
Fans who can’t get enough of Eileen can see more artwork of similar caliber in the recently published book The Museum of Bad Art: Masterworks (Ten Speed Press, $15), a follow-up to the museum’s popular first publication, The Museum of Bad Art: Art Too Bad to Be Ignored. The newest book features glossy full-color photos and descriptions of 70 works. “It is clear that many of these artists suffered for their art,” write Frank and Sacco in the book’s introduction. “Now it’s your turn.”
IF YOU GO:
DEDHAM COMMUNITY THEATRE
580 High Street in Dedham Square
55 Davis Square
THE MUSEUMS ARE OPEN DURING MOVIE HOURS.
NECEE REGIS tried to donate some of her own original artwork to MOBA; alas, it wasn’t quite bad enough.