So Bad It's Good

Upon entering the Somerville Movie Theatre in Davis Square, the smell of fresh popcorn overwhelms the nostrils. But ignore the buttery seduction. The real treasure is waiting downstairs. At the end of a long hallway, past all the doors leading to movies and bathrooms, is one of three locations for the Museum of Bad Art. The open doorway leads you to a long, narrow room with white walls and exposed pipes, alternatively known as the basement. Two enormous round couches with red velvet cover and spirals that rise up toward the ceiling populate each end of the room. The smell of popcorn is replaced by the vague hint of sewage, and when it’s quiet you can hear the soundtrack of the movie playing above.

These qualities only add to the charm. The current exhibit is called “DOPPLEHANGERS,” and features portraits resembling famous figures from Barack Obama to Molly Ringwald. There’s a painting of Dolly Parton sans legs, Jane Fonda with chest hair, and fan art dedicated to Donny and Marie Osmond.

According to Louise Sacco, the current executive director of the MOBA, it all started in 1994 when art and antique dealer Scott Wilson saw a painting someone had left out as trash on the streets of Boston. “The painting was terrible, but the frame was nice,” says Sacco. So he picked it up intending to throw out the picture and sell the frame. Sacco’s brother, Jerry Reilly, saw the painting and had to have it. After he hung the painting in his house, friends kept up a running joke, giving Jerry whatever bad paintings they spotted around town.

Reilly soon developed a collection, says Sacco, and when he moved to a new home in West Roxbury in 1996, he decided that in lieu of a housewarming party, he would display the bad art. He, Sacco, and other friends spray-painted the basement white and hung the paintings up with descriptions of each piece. Fifty people were invited to the party, which they called “the opening of the Museum of Bad Art.” By midnight, says Sacco, 200 people had shown up.

After running the museum by appointment from Reilly’s basement for a few years, the group began asking around for spaces that would allow them to display the MOBA collection free of charge. The first space they found was the basement of the Somerville Theatre, and there are now two other locationsone in the lobby of Brookline Interactive Group’s office on Tappan Street, and another collection depicting only animals at the New England Wildlife Center.

MOBA’s “big break” came when they released a CD-ROM (remember those?), an interactive, virtual version of the museum. “We released it at the same time that the Louvre released a similar thing, a virtual museum,” says Sacco. “And we actually got better reviews than they did.”

They made the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and since then, Sacco says she’s spoken to journalists from all over the world. Sacco has also traveled all over the country to speak about the museum, and pop-up exhibits have been held both nationally and internationally. But despite all the buzz, Sacco says she wants to keep the museum small. “All of this is done entirely with volunteers, no paid staff,” she says. “Our museums are always free, and so we operate on a real shoestring.”

In a culture that often seems obsessed with expansion, Sacco’s philosophy is refreshing. “Our goal really is to just keep it going,” she says. “Because it’s a volunteer effort, we don’t want it to grow into something unmanageable. So, to keep it going, with a couple of sites and an occasional big event, is just perfect for us.”

Sacco’s favorite piece is a dot painting entitled, “Sunday On the Pot with George,” currently on display at the Somerville location. She explains that the museum often receives paintings done by skilled painters, who simply made a bad decision in a particular work. “And then on the other end of that,” she says, “there are artists that barely know which end of the paintbrush to pick up.”

So what does it take to get your work into the MOBA? Sacco says that most importantly, the art needs to be, well, art. “It has to be a picture that something’s gone wrong in an interesting way. [Michael Frank], our curator, actually doesn’t use the word ‘bad’ at all,” says Sacco. Instead, his perspective is “these are things that would never make it in a traditional art museum.” The museum typically receives about twenty offers a month, and accepts one or two of those pieces. There are various reasons for rejectionssome are not quite museum quality but still technically good, but most are rejected because they’re uninteresting.

Sacco and Frank both love the art they display, and their goal is to motivate patrons to think more deeply about art. In the Somerville Theatre location, guests of the museum are heard reading captions aloud and offering their own critiques. “This is actually a good painting,” says a visitor to his family. “This one I wouldn’t mind on the wall.” Later, his wife comments with a laugh on a portrait of Barack Obama framed with photos of Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert: “This is extremely weird.”

“You don’t have to agree with us,” says Sacco. “If you think that this piece is good, or you disagree with us, that’s great. We love that. We want people to think about what they’re seeing.” Often, the museum gets visits from school groups who come to Boston to see the MFA, and stop in to see the MOBA first. “It does free young people up to have their own opinions,” she says, “not to be intimidated. I think that’s important.”

Photo by: Sabrina Ortiz