Auctioning Off Bad Art


Melati Kaye and Simcha Singer read about one of MoBA’s pieces.
Curator-in-Chief Mike Frank starts the bidding for “Clown.”

On Monday night, the Museum of Bad Art held a Rejection Collection Auction, raising $1,080 dollars for charity.

MoBA, whose permanent collection is “conveniently located just outside the men’s room” in the basement of the Dedham Community Theater, is the world’s preeminent institution dedicated to the collection, preservation, and advancement of bad art.

The idea of MoBA was born when antiques dealer Scott Wilson happened upon a painting about to be collected as trash in West Roxbury. That rescued work, the incomparable “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” is the piece de resistance of MoBA’s permanent collection. As MoBA patron Richard Gleaves observes, “As with all great art, extended viewing reveals endless layers of mysteries: What is Norman Mailer’s head doing on an innocent grandma’s body, and are those crows or F-16’s skimming the hills?”

Other favorites in the collection include a pointillist painting of a large man sitting in a bathroom, and “The Athlete,” a large work in crayon of a Greek athlete launching a discus and wearing a toga, black shoes and white socks. The majority of MoBA’s works are acquired as gifts, from the trash, or from thrift stores. Accordingly, said Louise Sacco, the Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director, the auction’s proceeds will go to two charities (in addition to MoBA itself): Goodwill, and the “entertainment fund” of the Cambridge Sanitation Department, “for their role in rescuing lots of our pieces from oblivion.”

Badness in art is an inscrutable quality. It is almost impossible to explain what makes a piece bad enough for MoBA, and 80-90% of all submitted works are rejected on the curators’ intuition. One trait that many works share, however, is that while the artist is clearly technically skilled and passionate about his work, something in the execution has gone horribly wrong. Common examples: the artist chooses an unfortunate subject, neglects to complete (or start) an important detail, like limbs, or adds words to the piece to convey meaning that he is unable to communicate successfully with images. The art must also not be intentionally bad. “The Athlete,” for example, was nearly removed from the permanent collection because of concerns raised about the artist’s sincerity. Finally, it helps if the piece is really big.

The auction on Monday night was a selection of pieces that MoBA has rejected over the years. Live previewing began at 7:00, and the bidding began at 7:30 to an audience of about 70. The event took place in the theater where “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” is currently playing. The pieces were spread around the room, so that bidders could sit next to their favorite works if they wished.

One early piece on the block was “Amoeba,” which opened at $5. The bidding increased to $23 and then stagnated. Mike Frank, the auctioneer and Curator-in-Chief, wondered if there were any scientists present who could verify that it was actually an amoeba. Melati Kaye, a bio major at Reed College in Oregon, said that she thought it looked like the moment of conception instead. The piece was immediately renamed “The Moment of Conception” and bidding took off again, ending at $32.

Another popular piece, “At the Shore,” featured a number of ladies in expensive dresses who appeared to be standing and reclining in what may or may not have been water. It was won by Peter Reynolds, a children’s book illustrator and Dedham store owner.

The largest painting, “Showgirl,” was acquired by Tim Medarri of Cambridge. It features a dancer with blue hair about to extend a green leg over her head, as well as a flower (or possibly a banana), and so much oil paint that the subject matter is unidentifiable except at a great distance. In addition to Showgirl, a number of paintings featured blue-haired or -skinned subjects. The pervasiveness of blue reflects both Frank’s preferences as Curator, and economic considerations. As Frank explained to the audience, “I never understood until someone told me that blue paint is cheaper than other colors.”

Showgirl’s new owner and his girlfriend, Georgia Beyersdorfer of Newton, were active bidders throughout the evening, also winning a copper engraving of the Madonna and an extremely cheerful Child “with googly eyes.” Mr. Medarri and Ms. Beyersdorfer got involved with MoBA one year ago, when “we came here for our second or third date, and we got terribly lost and it took us 1.5 hours from Newton. When we got to the museum, it was half-flooded…and it was pretty much the best date ever.”

What prompts people to buy bad art? As Mr. Reynolds, the new owner of At the Shore, explained about his purchase, “I would say….I would say…. that’s a very good question.”

MoBA is located at 580 High Street in Dedham Square. It is open whenever the theater is showing movies. For movie times, see For more information, see

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