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The Short Version: The Museum Of Bad Art started with one man’s enthusiasm for incredibly bad paintings. Jerry Reilly collected bad art because he thought there was something interesting about seeing an artist’s mistakes on the canvas. He discovered a lot of other people shared his appreciation for so-called bad art, and, in 1994, he started displaying his private collection in a free gallery in New England. Today, the Museum Of Bad Art showcases and celebrates misunderstood artwork in the basement of an old vaudeville movie theater. The not-for-profit museum has collected over 700 pieces, and each one has a story to tell. Some of the paintings were found in flea markets or dumpsters, while others were donated by artists or their families. Couples in Somerville, Massachusetts, can visit the museum to share a laugh and start a conversation. Admission is free to everyone, so it’s an affordable and amusing place to take a date. With over 60,000 followers on Facebook, the Museum Of Bad Art has become a popular local attraction, drawing hundreds of couples, families, friends, and other art lovers in the area.
In the early 1990s, an art and antiques dealer in Boston saved a painting from being thrown out because he thought the frame might be worth something. The painting was of a scowling woman walking in a flowery field under a yellow sky. It was somewhat disturbing to look upon. The art dealer later showed it to his friend Jerry Reilly as a joke.
Jerry thought it was so bad that it was actually good, so he took the painting and hung it over his fireplace in a place of ironical honor. The art dealer began keeping an eye out for weirdly bad works of art to send to Jerry, who gleefully took the paintings no one else could possibly want.
When Jerry moved to a new house, he decided to showcase the world’s best bad artwork in an informal housewarming party in March 1994. He and his friends wrote tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the art and displayed the paintings in his basement. Jerry invited about 50 people to come to his amusing gallery showing. By the end of the night, however, over 200 people crowded the space. Word had spread quickly about this unique collection of misfit paintings, and a lot of people had wanted to see it for themselves.
“The next morning, we said, ‘We have to keep this going,'” recalled Louise Reilly Sacco, Jerry’s sister and a founding member of the Museum Of Bad Art. They have since moved Jerry’s collection out of his basement and into the basement of an old-fashioned movie theater called the Somerville Theatre. Today, this unique nonprofit showcases the overlooked amateur artwork of the world.
Over the decades, the Museum Of Bad Art has collected over 700 pieces in its permanent collection, and each one is fantastically bad. Something somehow has gone terribly wrong during the creation of these works of art, but it’s the flaws that make them so interesting to behold. Such outlandish errors in judgment or skill often make people stop and think — or stop and laugh.
From the moment you walk into the gallery, you can hear people talking and laughing quietly together. With its low ceiling and sparse decor, the Museum Of Bad Art fosters a casual atmosphere where couples can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts about unusual works of art.
“You’re going to have things to talk about, and you can show your sense of humor,” Louise said. “It’s also just a good free thing to do on a date.”
You can find the Museum Of Bad Art’s main gallery at the Somerville Theatre in the heart of Davis Square, which is the typical hangout spot for young people in town. This area is the perfect place to take a date because you’re surrounded by local pubs and restaurants. You can start with a trip to the museum to give yourselves something to talk about, and then walk to an eatery where you can continue your conversation over drinks, dinner, and dessert.
You could also catch a flick during your visit. When you buy a movie ticket at the Somerville Theatre, you get free admission to the Museum Of Bad Art located in its basement. That makes it easy to enjoy a unique dinner-museum-movie date.
Visitors should note that buying a movie ticket isn’t the only way to earn free admission to the Museum Of Bad Art. You can also request a free pass to the museum by sending an email to [email protected]
“We’re run completely by volunteers, and that lets us keep the museum free to everyone,” Louise said. “We see a lot of students because we’re that halfway point between Tufts University and Harvard.”
The Museum Of Bad Art began when someone took a liking to a discarded, and slightly disturbing, oil painting of an old woman frolicking in a field. Jerry called the piece “Lucy in the Field With Flowers” and has displayed it proudly for decades. It was even the cover for the MOBA’s first book “The Museum Of Bad Art: Art Too Bad to Be Ignored.”
One day, a family contacted the museum to say that the Lucy in the painting was actually their grandmother. The painting had been done after she’d died and had been hanging in the home of their elderly aunt when she died. They didn’t know what had happened to the painting and were glad to know it had been saved. The Museum Of Bad Art offered to return this sentimental family treasure to them, but the family said they were happy to have it hanging in the gallery where others could appreciate it.
The Museum Of Bad Art frequently rescues art from the dumpster or flea markets, and those works undoubtedly have stories attached to them, but they don’t always find out who created these stunning works.
“We don’t know who made most of our pieces — or why — but we’re finding joy in them,” Louise said.
Sometimes an artist or a family member will donate a work of bad art. They’re typically glad to find a use for something that didn’t turn out quite as planned. The Museum Of Bad Art doesn’t mock any artist’s work. Instead, they call attention to the care, skill, or creativity that went into making the painting.
John B. Gedraitis, who painted “Sunday on the Pot With George,” said he was pleased to find his portrait hanging in the museum. “The paintings in the collection have emerged out of trash cans and dark corners where they would have been totally forgotten,” he said in a Facebook comment. “Instead, they are shining under spotlights, celebrated for their quirkiness, and adored by almost everyone who encounters them.”
“We’ll find an audience for it, we’ll celebrate it, and we’ll make something good out of failure,” Louise said. “These are pieces we love because they get you thinking, wondering, and talking about the artist.”
Couples can go to Davis Square to see the Museum Of Bad Art and make a day of it. The gallery won’t take long to view the 20 to 25 paintings in the basement of the movie theater, so it’s not uncommon for visitors to take in a movie or go get dinner afterward. Visiting the museum on a date is a great way to loosen up and start a conversation about some truly wacky paintings.
“I think it’s a strategic move for people dating to come here,” Louise said. “It lets that person know you have a sense of humor and a good knowledge of art.”
The MOBA collection is always growing — the space is too small to display every work of art sent to the curators — so you can always find something new to wonder at in this humble gallery.
“Those of us who make art struggle with it. MOBA reminds us not to take it so seriously.” — Peter S., a fan of the Museum Of Bad Art
Sometimes the Museum Of Bad Art hosts special themed events or traveling art exhibits to share their love for bad art with a broader audience. You can hear about these free exhibitions by subscribing to the MOBA email newsletter. Members receive free admission to all special events, an emailed copy of the coveted MOBA News, and the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you support a good cause.
Many members visit the museum over and over again, bringing friends, family members, and dates with them to share the experience. Their loyalty and patronage keeps the museum’s doors open. The Museum Of Bad Art cultivates a close relationship with its members and is always open to their suggestions for the future of bad art.
As Linda C. said on the museum’s Facebook page, “Those of us who have followed MOBA for years (obsessively in my case) have come to understand the Curator-in-Chief’s exquisitely refined taste and judgment in their acquisitions.”
The Museum Of Bad Art offers a fun and low-key environment for daters who have a fondness for strange and misunderstood things. When Jerry first displayed “Lucy in the Field With Flowers” nearly three decades ago, he had no idea it would cause such a stir in the community. He just thought it was an amusing and enigmatic conversation piece.
Today the Museum Of Bad Art is run by Louise Reilly Sacco and Michael Frank, the curator-in-chief. Their not-for-profit organization highlights unorthodox works of art that give people something to talk about as they stroll through the gallery. The paintings inspire curiosity, conversation, and humor, and the Museum Of Bad Art doesn’t charge anything to view them.
Couples can gaze in wonder at dozens of interesting pieces and spend the rest of the date night discussing what makes art good or bad.
The Museum Of Bad Art makes art more accessible to everyone because you don’t have to have much artistic knowledge to see where these paintings went wrong.
“They’re not fine art by any definition,” Louise acknowledged, “but they’re valuable and treasured by somebody, and now we’re valuing and treasuring them.”