The origin of the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) is just as unlikely as the paintings in its gallery. The museum was founded when antique dealer Scott Wilson spotted a promising-looking picture frame in a trash can. He was initially only interested in the frame, but the painting he discovered was too bad to ignore. The painting, now known as “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” depicted an elderly woman prancing through a meadow. Her pose was stiff, the colors were too saturated and best of all, her dress was blowing the wrong way. Wilson displayed the painting in his home and with the encouragement of his friends, he started to collect more exquisitely bad art pieces, eventually opening a small museum in his basement in Massachusetts.
Locals and the occasional tourist took interest in this quirky museum and it quickly outgrew its humble origins. The collection has moved a few times, but MOBA eventually found a permanent home in the basement of the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Massachusetts. The collection now includes over 700 paintings, most of which were donated by friends and patrons who wanted to share uniquely bad art with the world.
Philosophy and Standards
As it stands, MOBA is one of the only museums dedicated to collecting and sharing subjectively “bad” art. With that said, the museum has surprisingly high standards for what they will accept. Only one in 10 art donations are accepted, if that. Although some of the intent behind the museum is to amuse patrons, MOBA is primarily meant to celebrate the bad artwork, not mock it. As such, the curators aren’t interested in art that’s made to be deliberately ugly or kitsch. Rather, they look for earnest pieces of artwork where the artist genuinely tried to express themselves or communicate a concept. The resulting product may be absurd or technically incorrect, but it’s still a sincere piece of art. In the words of Marie Jackson, one of the co-founders of the museum, “We are here to celebrate an artist’s right to fail, gloriously.”
In a way, the museum elevates the art. It displays some of the world’s worst art in a place of honor where it can be viewed and appreciated by many people. Many artists are afraid of making mistakes, and seeing such bold examples of failure could encourage an amateur artist to create without fear of the results. After all, even if the resulting product is poor or doesn’t live up to the artist’s expectations, the time and effort is valid and the result is worth respecting. And if it’s spectacularly bad, it might even be worth putting in a museum.
The museum has been popular with fans of art and the bizarre, and in two instances, it caught the eye of at least one thief. In 1996, a thief walked off with one of the museum’s paintings and reportedly demanded $5000 for its safe return. Unfortunately for the thief, MOBA holds the world record for the least valuable art collection in a public museum, with each painting worth an average of about $2. MOBA responded by offering a generous $6.50 as a reward for the painting’s safe return, although the museum eventually offered a little under $37 dollars after a few patrons donated to the cause. The painting was thought to be lost forever until it was abruptly returned 10 years later, likely because the thief realized that holding on to the painting was a liability and there just wasn’t much of a market for bad art. MOBA has since installed fake security cameras to deter any more potential thieves.
Thankfully, MOBA hasn’t been plagued with enough thieves to deter them from diversifying. After years of slowly building and curating its collection, MOBA has been able to diversify and include some traveling exhibits to share its bad art outside the confines of the museum. For example, MOBA hosted an open-air exhibition, where the art pieces were hung from trees. And of course, the exhibit was accompanied by a collection of bad music to complete the experience.
Another traveling exhibit, called Awash with Bad Art, featured several shrink-wrapped art pieces that were installed in a drive-through car wash, so patrons could view the ugly art while their car got cleaned.
The Museum Today
MOBA is currently closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will likely reopen its doors once again. In the meantime, pieces of the collection can still be viewed online, where each art piece is accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek caption. There’s everything from badly proportioned portraits to a collection comprised of paintings filled with eyes. MOBA is a bold and bizarre collection of art that dares to celebrate the artists who try, even if they don’t quite succeed.