Art From the Bottom of the Heap: A 'Museum' Devoted to Bad Painting

Two Boston men and one of their wives have elevated - or lowered - art collecting and art exhibits to the level of sublime fun.

By their own account, the group collects and shows art that is too bad to be ignored.

The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA), which started in the living room of computer programmer Jerry Reilly, in the Boston neighborhood of West Roxbury, fills a niche in society today, Mr. Reilly says. While every city in the world has at least one museum dedicated to the best of art, he says, MOBA is the only museum dedicated ''to collecting and exhibiting the worst.''

He couldn't have done it, he says, without the help of curator Scot Wilson, antique dealer and roving Boston trash rummager. Mr. Wilson once got a $100 fine for picking through trash in upscale Newton, Mass., but he figures the police in Boston ''have more pressing things to do.''

As MOBA gains in fame - media attention has hit - donors are offering bad art from all over the United States. But the ''core'' collection, Scot says, came from trash barrels, yard sales, and neighborhood thrift shops in Boston.

Clever commentary

The distinctly tongue-in-cheek commentaries displayed alongside the works was written by Reilly's wife, Marie Jackson. Her wit is as keen as her Irish lilt is catching. For example, she writes of ''Circus Romp,'' a veritable tangle of three-ring action by Unknown: ''This joyous, frightful circus romp transcends Unknown's entire work.''

And of ''Thornton's Pond'' by A.E. Whitney (acquired at a yard sale) she writes: ''Do not stand back. Let the deep, ever darkening painting draw you ever closer to the explosion of fiery foliage that illuminates the battery currents of the waterfall.''

Earlier this fall, MOBA had a 10-day showing at the gallery of Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass., giving it a foot in the door of serious art circles. The collectors actually have some criteria: Jerry, Marie, and Scot showed five works that failed to make the cut because they lacked a certain charming goofiness.

Later several new acquisitions were shown, to viewers' roars.

Refreshments at an open house for the Montserrat showing included Spam and bread, pink marshmallow fluff, and green Kool Aid. Jerry has a flaky-looking tux he reserves for showings, one of which was set in the woods of Wellfleet, Mass., on Cape Cod last summer. ''We made it a black-tie affair,'' he sighs, ''but some came in jackets and swim trunks.''

Works gone badly awry

The irony of a real art school showing really bad art is explained, Mr. Wilson says, in the kind of works MOBA selects. They are sincere, often have technical flair, but they have badly missed their goal in a way that delightfully pushes them ''beyond mere incompetence,'' he says.

MOBA now boasts more than 100 friends of the museum. The whole idea unhinges the usual seriousness of appreciating venerable art, and people love the spontaneity of spoofing aesthetics. They become natural dilettantes of outrageous stabs at art.

The Museum of Bad Art started one evening when Wilson gave his friend Reilly a painting that was so bad that Reilly had to hang it. Others joined it and a showing was held for friends. A second showing in 1993 brought more than 100 viewers, and a movement was born.

Recently, MOBA got a permanent home in the basement of the Dedham Community Theater in Dedham, Mass.

In a huge collaboration of 90-plus friends of MOBA, a humorous but still classy CD-ROM has been produced, called simply ''Museum of Bad Art.'' MOBA puts out a weekly on-line newsletter at:, where the CD can also be ordered. Or call (617) 444-6757.

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