February 25, 2020
Museum of Bad Art Continues to Ride Publicity Wave

By Andrea Decof

It all started with
The Museum of Bad Art, a repository of laughably bad art by both serious artists and rank amateurs, has been riding a wave of worldwide publicity for more than a dozen years and is about to get another publicity boost as the subject of a documentary film.

MOBA—as the museum is known—recently achieved nonprofit status as a 501(c)(3) organization, granting it new respectability and seriousness of purpose. By any measure, this is a banner year for the offbeat little museum.

MOBA has been entertaining art lovers (or haters), moviegoers, and the merely curious in the lower level gallery of the Dedham Community Theater in Dedham Square for the past decade, with “art too bad to be ignored.”

Crazy Roller Coaster Ride

Home of the pointillist nightmare “Sunday on the Pot with George” and “In the Cat’s Mouth,” a portrait of a giant orange cat consuming mankind, the museum celebrates the truly awful, the misguided, misshapen and the best of bad art. The growth of MOBA has been one crazy roller coaster ride, says Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director Louise Sacco.

“We’re doing a lot of educational programs now, and want to mount more traveling shows,” Sacco reports. “Being a nonprofit gives us credibility. It’s easier to get interns and volunteers to help. And now we can apply for grants to help defray some of the costs, instead of relying on book and tee shirt sales for income.”

And she notes, “As we solicit more donations, the tax-free status is more important.”

She projects that the museum’s budget, usually $5,000 to $8,000, will now climb to the $25,000 range as they expand their programs to include more special exhibits. With titles like “Nature Abhors a Vacuum and Other Housework” and “I Just Can’t Stop: Relentless Creativity, A Celebration of Compulsive Creativity,” these shows have been crowd pleasers in the past.

MOBA’s educational programming includes visits by school groups, who come in conjunction with field trips to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

“The teachers like to show the children our collection first, to give them some perspective,” Sacco says. “At MOBA we give them permission to have their own opinions on art. Then, when they visit the MFA, they may have more open ideas.”

Started as a lark, MOBA began when Scott Wilson, an art and antiques dealer “six credits short of an art degree,” found a cache of bad, really bad, art in a trash pile on the street. The paintings spoke to him, and he decided to display them in a makeshift gallery in the basement of his friends’ home. Word got out, and soon people were knocking on their door day and night to view the collection.

Like a virulent mold, the collection grew. Eventually they ran out of exhibition space. Enter Garen Daly, then-owner of the Dedham Community Theater, who invited the museum to take up residence in the lower level of his theater. The rest is history. Since then the museum, which operates free of charge, has been a popular and critical success, both with patrons of the arts and moviegoers.

The exhibit is changed three times a year, as more acquisitions come in. Donations arrive all the time, says Sacco. “We have almost 400 pieces in the collection now,” she marvels. “People continue to send us artwork from everywhere. We used to get boxes all the time from UPS, unsolicited. Now most people will send us a digital photo, which is much easier.”

She estimates MOBA gets 30 to 40 submissions a month. Out of those, only three or four will be accepted. Criteria are stringent.

“Our criteria are the same as a fine arts museum,” she says. “The work has to be original. It must be sincere, have emotional content, and be something people react to. And, of course,” she adds, “ it must be bad.”

MOBA policy stipulates that no work of art may be purchased for more than $6.50. The current curator, Mike Frank, is lobbying for a budget increase to $15, taking into account today’s higher cost of living. Other staff members are opposed.

Work that doesn’t make the grade for the exhibit goes into the yearly “Rejection Collection” Auction, scheduled for April 23 this year. “In the past we’ve made $1200 to $2000 on each auction,” Sacco says. “Now we have so many pieces, we have to choose the best 40 for the auction. So we’re hoping to make even more this time.”

She reports that volunteers and friends of MOBA still find some “finds” in the trash, as well as in yard sales, church sales and thrift shops. “Just think about it,” she says. “You’re walking down Newbury Street and you stop in your tracks outside a gallery. You say to your companion, “Wow, look at that!” Like as not, you’ll be pointing out art that’s really bad. People like bad art!”

“Now consider this,” she continues. “We have two pieces in our collection by Roger Hanson, who is a real artist. His work is really good, but even good artists can make some bad pieces. The Saatchi Gallery in London, a very prominent art gallery, is considering showing his work. Imagine having his work in MOBA and in the Saatchi Gallery at the same time!”

Publicity Bonanza Started Early On

Quirky items like this and the general appeal of the concept has meant a publicity bonanza for MOBA. Early on, they were featured in Wired, Rolling Stone, and The Wall Street Journal. Katie Couric did a live remote from the museum when it started in 1994. CNN and Good Morning America have done stories. But it goes way beyond that.

“We’ve been featured in the front of the Verizon phone book, in the Boston University Daily Free Press, in American Airlines’ inflight magazine, The Atlanta Journal, a newspaper in central Arizona, and in magazines in Copenhagen, Johannesburg, and Jakarta. This month we’re featured in magazines in Brazil and Turkey. We’ve also been on the Bravo! network in Canada and the BBC in England,” Sacco says.

“It’s just amazing,” she admits. “Partly it’s the subject matter. It catches your attention, it’s fun and interesting. But the worldwide publicity? That came from two sources primarily: The Wall Street Journal and airline magazines.”

Sacco, a retired marketing consultant, notes that after a Boston stringer for The Wall Street Journal featured MOBA in a column, she discovered that “every journalist in the world uses The Wall Street Journal as a source.”

Sacco calls this a “milestone year” for MOBA. In addition to its new nonprofit status, it’s about to become the subject of a documentary film by Boston University’s Department of Film and TV. The filmmakers will travel to Minnesota to interview one of the artists featured in MOBA, and will be filming at the Dedham theater site.

Sacco anticipates another publicity stream when the film is released: “It may run on NPR, and will be entered in film festivals as well as local showings. And of course, we’ll show it at the Dedham theater.”

Sacco currently logs 10-15 hours a week for MOBA, speaking to reporters, tracking and acknowledging donations, working on the website and newsletter (which now has 10,000 subscribers), and organizing special events. She estimates the curator spends another 10 hours a week, and they have a college intern working one day a week. They also have “Friends of MOBA” and recruit volunteers as needed, to help with events like the upcoming auction.

“We’re trying to get some celebrity auctioneers to participate,” she says, “And we have a vocal rock band, Similar Jones, that will perform.”

MOBA believes in giving back, and part of the proceeds from this year’s auction will go to their own designated charities: Goodwill Industries, the Fund for Cambridge Trash Collectors’ Union, and the Dedham Square Circle.

In her spare time, Sacco is the host of a Sunday radio talk show, the “Frugal Yankee Radio Hour” on 1550 AM. These two pursuits, she says, keep her pretty busy.

“I’m not making any money, but I’m having a lot of fun,” she laughs.

The Museum of Bad Art’s “Rejection Collection” Auction will be held on April 23, 2007, at the Dedham Community Theater, 580 High St., Dedham. Previews at 7:00 p.m.; bidding starts at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 781-444-6757 or visit www.museumofbadart.org.

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