The gallery of the garish masterpieces of bad art


In the outskirts of Boston, an Irish woman has begun the diligent work of recovering and preserving a vital piece of our international cultural heritage. Attics are ransacked, cellars scoured and family heirlooms scuttled in her quest to salvage the pieces which will hang proudly in the Museum of Bad Art, the MOBA.

The Museum, founded by Marie Jackson from Derry and her American husband Jerry Reilly, is a celebration of wonky perspective and complete artistic lack of self-control. Its permanent exhibition is devoted to the "I can't draw a straight line" school of art. As the museum directors suggest, this is art too bad to ignore. The MOBA, not to be confused with New York's Museum of Modern Art (the MOMA), is located in the basement of a cinema in the Boston suburb of Dedham. It exhibits works that are simply mind-bogglingly bad. Sunday on the Pot with George is a meticulous impressionist work of a corpulent man wearing only shorts and sitting on a toilet; Dog is a haunting, expressionist portrait of a puppy super-imposed on a snowy mountain; and Burger on a Beach is probably self-explanatory.

The inspiration for the museum came in 1993, when Boston antiques dealer Scott Wilson discovered a painting lying on the pavement beside some rubbish bags. He presented the portrait, a swirl of garish colours depicting a blue-rinsed lady with hornrimmed specs sitting on a chair in the middle of a meadow, to his friends Marie Jackson and Jerry Reilly. The couple was infatuated by the anonymous work, which they christened Lucy in the Field with Flowers. They immediately began collecting other abandoned masterpieces of bad taste.

"I thought that if these pictures were looked after and exhibited, lots of people would look at them," said Jackson. "We are here to celebrate an artist's right to fail, gloriously."

Jackson has written and produced children's films for Aisling Films in Belfast, a company she co-founded. Now she has the highfalutin' title "director of aesthetic interpretation" for the Museum of Bad Art. Her husband, Jerry Reilly acts as "executive director" of the establishment. Scott Wilson fulfills the role of "esteemed curator".

Anyone hoping to donate a work to MOBA will have to meet their rigorous standards. The museum board is not interested in student efforts, deliberate kitsch or velvet Elvises.

"We only show original works, not reproductions," explains Jackson. "They have to be done with the courage, enthusiasm and exuberance that can make great art. But in these cases, something has gone terribly wrong."

In the early days, the works were hung in the basement of the Jackson-Reilly home outside Boston. Four years ago, the Museum of Bad Art acquired its permanent public exhibition space in downtown Dedham. The museum has a policy of never paying more than $6.50 for an artwork. "One of the things that upsets me is that people classify painting according to their monetary value," said Jackson.

Most of the museum acquisitions were completely free. In fact, artists queuing up to donate their best efforts. Jackson explained: "There is great competition to get into the museum. Nine out of every 10 pieces offered are rejected. Usually an artist's idea of bad work doesn't meet our low standards."

The museum operates as a sort of public outreach programme for the artistically challenged.

"It's a win-win situation," said Jackson. "If we reject a work, it proves that the artist is better than he thought. If we accept it, the artist gets to have his work exhibited in a museum."

Her only promise is that any piece sent to MOBA will never be returned.

THE museum which is supposed to celebrate artistic failure has become a popular success. Over 3,000 patrons have become Friends of MOBA and receive a regular newsletter. The museum's website - http: // w.w.w.glyphs. com/moba/ - is well visited. Devotees can buy a glossy catalogue or a CD-Rom illustrating some of the most objectionable works.

Then there are the postcards, bumper stickers and souvenir Tshirts which read: "In our museum, it's not the artists that are tortured."

MOBA's travelling shows have also proved a hit with art connoisseurs. Once the museum directors took all the pictures to the woods near Cape Cod for an open-air exhibition. The works were hung from trees while bad music was piped through the forest.

"Another time we covered 18 pieces of art with shrink wrap so while customers were passing through the car wash they could look at them," recalled Jackson. "We didn't put any water colours in there."

The museum hit the headlines three years ago when one of its paintings was stolen. Its directors held a press conference with local TV crews and the theft was written up in the Boston Globe newspaper. Police classed the incident in the "larceny, other" category. Since the theft, fake surveillance cameras have been installed in the museum.

Inevitably the museum, which mocks the loftier pretensions of the professional art world, has begun to gain a strange sort of credibility. It has already been the subject of articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Even serious art critics can't help responding to these neo-primitive works.

Jackson retains a genuine affection for the museum's collection, and the, umm, artists who produced it. She explained: "I love these painters because it doesn't matter whether they have any ability or not, they just do it."