Borealis by M. Choquette (1931), oil on canvas, donated by Mary Fadel
By Samantha Gsch:
I steeled myself for a gloomy afternoon at the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA). I was standing in the pouring rain outside Boston’s Somerville Theatre, knocking on wet glass and feebly explaining that I wasn’t waiting on the next movie showtime. Luckily Louise Sacco, my guide and MOBA’s “Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director,” spotted me and ushered me down to the theater basement, where the museum (and the bathrooms) are located. I scanned a large sign proclaiming the museum’s motto: “Art Too Bad to Be Ignored.”
The current exhibition of about thirty works is culled from a collection of over six hundred by MOBA’s Curator-in-Chief Michael Frank, a musician who also performs magic at children’s parties. The show begins with a velvet painting of Elvis labeled, “Not Bad Art.” “This is an example of what we do not consider,” Louise explained to me, pointing at Elvis. “We don’t show kitsch, nor do we show children’s art, tourist stuff or paint by numbers.”
She walked over to a nearby portrait. “Often works in our collection are done by skilled artists trying something new, and failing,” she continued. “Here you see a common problem in bad art: the artist did not know how to paint hands or feet.” She was right — one hand was way too large, and the other was unfinished, as if the artist had just given up. I remembered my own struggles drawing hands in art classes as I looked around the museum, spotting many other instances of missing appendages. “People often try to find ways to avoid rendering hands and feet,” Louise said. “They will cut them off, or they try to hide them, maybe by putting the feet under a table.”
She circled the space, pointing out other common representative problems, such as ineffective perspective. In one painting, two tiny women seemed dwarfed by the gigantic garden through which they strolled; in another, a baby meant to be holding a globe looked as though he was reaching through it. “Baby Atlas,” as MOBA titled the piece, was found in an MIT hallway. “Many works come to us from attics, basements, the trash, or thrift stores,” Louise told me. “And about eighty percent of donations are rejected. It can’t be boring or mediocre, it has to be bad.” Any rejected work that cannot be returned to its donor is sold at the museum’s Charity Bad Art Auction. Each sold work comes with an official MOBA certificate of rejection.
We stood by a creepy painting called Mama and Babe, donated by an artist named Sarah Irani. The mother’s face was blue while the daughter’s was maroon, and both suffered from unfinished hands. “The artist was trying something with color that just didn’t work,” Louise explained. “Why would anyone want to donate their own work to a museum of bad art?” I asked. “Oh, artists regularly submit their own work. It’s a win-win situation!” she answered. “If they don’t get in, they can say that their work wasn’t bad enough to be in The Museum of Bad Art, and if they do get in, they can say that their work is in a museum collection.”
I took Louise over to a portrait of a man sitting in a chair (pictured above). “I think this one is good, actually. I like the color palette, and it reminds me of an Alice Neel painting,” I told her. “Oh, you are more than welcome to disagree with us!” she responded. “In fact we encourage that. We love it when we find people arguing over the art in our collection. I personally have no formal art training, and my work here over the years has freed me up to be comfortable using my own judgment when looking at art.”
Indeed, The Museum of Bad Art manages to respect both its patrons and the works it represents. Some paintings, like “Too Fat People” by Leger Vilfort, are accompanied by sincere wall text that links the work to canonical art history — in this case, Peter Paul Rubens. Other works, like “Baby Atlas,” are explained via snippets of pop music: “Who can disagree with Whitney Houston? I believe that children are our future…” In celebrating failures of expression, the museum revels in the subjectivity of interpretation. If “there is knowable truth in art,” as Sacco and Frank suggest in their new book, then it is up to each of us to find it.
For more information about the museum, its three locations, and a schedule of traveling exhibitions, visit Museumofbadart.org.