Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature
“This may be a museum of bad art but we have exacting standards,” says Louise Sacco

The museum dates back to 1993, when a friend of mine spotted a painting propped up beside a trash can in Boston. He showed it to my brother, Jerry Reilly, who agreed the picture was so bad that it deserved to be hung on a wall.

The painting was of an elderly woman “floating” in a windswept field, set against a yellow sky. Jerry hung it above his fireplace and named it “Lucy in the Sky with Flowers”. It was spectacularly bad but nobody realised back then that it would inspire an entire collection of bad art.

Soon afterwards, because so many people had commented on that picture, Jerry held a bad-art party at his house. We painted the cellar walls white and hung a collection of paintings we’d bought at garage sales and junk shops. About 50 people were invited but by the end of the evening around 250 had turned up.

It was obvious that many of the works were by very good artists, who had simply lost their way mid-painting. One piece that we called “Pauline Resting” shows a naked woman reclining on a bed. The proportions suggest that it was painted by someone who had never seen a naked woman.

We named another “Mana Lisa”; it’s somebody’s interpretation of the Da Vinci work. The woman seems to have a man’s face and, as in so many of our pieces, the hands are problematic. The wonderful “Dog Bites Man” is just that – a dog in mid-air, snapping a man on the nose.

Another favourite is “Ronan the Pug”. Obviously, the artist, Erin Rothgeb, wanted to show a happy dog in her painting. Unfortunately, the result is less than flattering. Ronan looks cross-eyed and has a slightly tipsy aspect.

After the party, five of us decided that it would be fun to open a museum of bad art. We found a small space and started scouring the world for pieces. It didn’t take long – once word was out, we had a flood of offerings. Initially, some critics thought we were poking fun at art but what surprised us, and them, was the fact that lots of our paintings were sent in by the artists themselves.

Since those early days, the collection has gone from strength to strength. The gallery now owns more than 700 bad artworks, although there is only room to display 70 paintings at one time. We’ve moved home too, to a space beneath an old cinema in Boston.

I spend about 12 hours a week running the museum. I retired from my job as a business consultant and thought it would be the perfect thing to keep me busy. I’m also a big baseball fan and work part-time as an usher for the Boston Red Sox.

The paintings still keep arriving in the post. In fact, so many are sent that we can’t even keep them all. We don’t accept anything drawn by children, or paintings that have been done deliberately badly. This may be a museum of bad art but we have exacting standards.

We get more than 100 visitors a week; we don’t charge an entry fee. I love walking in and hearing the laughter, because people have no idea what to expect.

A personal favourite is “Retch Like an Egyptian”, which appears to show an ancient Egyptian throwing up various objects over the top of a pyramid. The thought process that has gone into a painting is sometimes more baffling than the work itself.

The paintings we don’t keep are sold off for charity as part of the Rejection Collection. People buy them too. Each one has a certificate, proudly stating that it was rejected by the Museum of Bad Art. Our mission is to make people laugh and I enjoy running the museum as much as ever. It simply celebrates the fact that an artist has a right to fail too.


To comment on this article please post below, or email magazineletters@ft.com

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article