Somerville is a city known for its creative and artistic residents. But it is also home to a well known collection of bad art.
At the Somerville Theatre you can pay to watch a movie and then drop by next door to see some bad art – For free. Located in the basement of the Davis Square theatre is the Museum of Bad Art, a place locals call “ingenious” for its hilarious paintings. There is no staff on location, just bad art to walk art to admire.
“When I stop in, and so often as I’m walking in I hear people inside laughing, laughing out loud, or saying to their friends ‘come and see this one; look at that one’,” said Louise Reilly Sacco, whose title reads permanent acting interim executive director.
The Needham resident said the laughing is her favorite part about running the Museum of Bad Art, or MOBA as it’s referred to on the museum website.
Michael Frank, of Jamaica Plain, is the curator for MOBA. It’s his job to find the artwork and deem it “museum worthy.”
“I look for images that are compelling,” said 65-year-old Frank, who can’t ever pass a yard sale and just say no. Sacco said, “he can’t stay out of thrift stories either.”
The museum, which has been in the Somerville Theatre basement since 2008, started some 20 years ago in the basement of Sacco’s brother. (But that’s a longer story we’ll get to later.)
Among the museum’s favorites is a painting called Mana Lisa, donated close to ten years ago. The artist is Andrea Schmidt from Ontario, Canada.
“I was just goofing around one night and I was fully going to throw that in the garbage,” said 38-year-old Schmidt. “That was never going to see the light of day, ever.”
Until Schmidt’s roommate came home.
“She laughed so hard she almost fell on the ground,” said Schmidt, who doesn’t actually paint at all. She is a professional graphic designer. Schmidt had been taking some art classes at the time “just for fun.”
She painted the Mana Lisa by looking at a picture she took of the real Mona Lisa in the Louvre. She used oil pastels and painted it in 15 to 20 minutes.
“It was very random, just a small blip in my life,” she said.
Schmidt had already been a fan of MOBA, after seeing an exhibit in Ottawa, and decided to submit the painting after seeing the reaction from her roommate. She never thought it would actually get accepted into the museum.
MOBA started similar to Schmidt’s story, with a piece of artwork that someone laughed at and decided it shouldn’t be thrown away.
According to Sacco, Scott Wilson from West Roxbury, one of the five founders of MOBA, saw a painting leaning against a trash barrel in Boston. He thought the painting was ugly and only wanted the nice frame.
Jerry Reilly of Newton, who is Wilson’s best friend and Sacco’s brother, saw it and said, “You can’t throw that out, it’s so bad it’s good.” At the time, Reilly was living in West Roxbury. He began collecting more bad art and in 1993, wound up with a basement full of it. At a housewarming party, he and his wife dubbed his basement collection the grand opening of MOBA.
The basement museum became quite popular, and after it attracted a bus full of senior citizens from Rhode Island, Reilly decided it was time to move. He found another basement to showcase the art in the Dedham Community Theater. Although, that location is not currently open.
The MOBA moved to Somerville in 2008, to yet another basement. A third location exists in the lobby of Brookline Access Television. In total, the museum has over 600 works of bad art, but there is only enough space to display about 100. MOBA in Somerville holds the largest collection.
MOBA also holds exhibitions all over the country, and is known internationally. Sacco said the crowds are always a mix. Some come dressed in suits and ties, some wear casual clothes and foot flops.
So, what actually is bad art?
“It has to be art, it has to be sincere,” said Sacco.
Sacco said she and Frank can tell if someone just tried to make it bad, and that’s not what they’re looking for. It has to be original, as if the artist set out to go to a beautiful place, but took a wrong turn somewhere.
“It has to look as if something may have gone wrong with the execution, the technique,” said Frank. “It has to make you scratch your head and wonder ‘why?’ What was the artist thinking?’”
One of Sacco’s favorite paintings, Sunday on the Pot with George, makes her contemplate those questions.
“The painter did a good job. There’s a lot of detail that shows in it, using these little dots of paint, which is not an easy way to represent things,” said Sacco. “But it’s a picture of a guy sitting on the toilet in his tighty-whities. Why would you do this?”
Still, MOBA doesn’t exist to mock the artists, Sacco insists.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” said Sacco. “We celebrate these pieces.”
Schmidt, however, admits she had some mixed feelings when her painting was accepted into the museum.
“I felt on one hand kind of proud that I had created something so hideous and bizarre and funny that they would want to accept it, and also sort of embarrassed to let it see the light of day,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt quoted the famous artist Joseph Beuys, “Everyone’s an artist…”
“But also a lot of us have kind of an intuitive sense of what is good art and so the museum kind of combines those two ideas together in an interesting way,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt said she will always be a fan of the museum and encourages people to do art.
“No matter what the outcome, you can never go wrong by following what it is that you enjoy,” said Schmidt.
The Museum of Bad Art is located in the basement of the Somerville Theater at 55 Davis Square. MOBA is open whenever movies are playing.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.