Two of my favorite cultural institutions happen to be in the same place: the Dedham Community Theater, which has also, since 1996, been home to the Museum of Bad Art, or MOBA. The museum’s paintings have adorned the walls just outside the men’s room, in the basement. It is a spot worthy of such paintings as “Sunday on the Pot with George” and “Alien Adam and Eve.”
It has always lived up to its slogan: “Art too bad to be ignored.”
But last month, the theater, whose films, seats, popcorn, and beer I have come to love over the years, started some renovations, and gave the museum three days to get out.
“It was done a little abruptly; we should have had a sendoff party,” concedes theater owner Paul McMurtry, who donated the space free to the paintings. “But we’re turning the basement into another screening room.”
McMurtry, who just began his fourth term as a state representative for Dedham, Westwood, and part of Walpole, says that there’s “been a surge of interest in good art” in Dedham Square, with art stores and galleries.
Yes, but can they compete with MOBA’s “Bone-juggling Dog in Hula Skirt” and “Pablo Presley?” I doubt it.
Louise Reilly Sacco, the “permanent acting interim executive director” of MOBA, has been with the museum since 1994, when her brother Jerry got his first piece of bad art and hung it in his West Roxbury home. It was “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” which a friend had found in the trash.
“You can’t tell if Lucy is sitting or standing, and the wind is blowing in two directions,” says Sacco. The painting graces the cover of MOBA’s first book.
MOBA has two other locations: the Somerville Theater and the Brookline Access Television Studio. But Dedham has been its flagship, and hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories around the world have chronicled it. “Katie Couric, and German and Indonesian TV have been in there shooting,” says Sacco.
Not only that, but the location also honored the old tradition of theaters in the 1940s and ‘50s selling “art” that it hung on the walls, she says.
The Museum of Bad Art has high standards; it doesn’t just take any old piece. In fact, only 10 percent of what’s offered is accepted. “The first criterion is that it has to be art,” says Sacco. “It has to be sincere, it has to be original.”
The museum will not accept black velvet paintings (“That’s kitsch,” says Sacco), nor will it accept children’s art, tourist or cruise ship art, or motel paintings (“If you’re buying it to match the sofa, it’s not art, it’s decoration”).
Most of the collection comes from flea markets, garage sales, and thrift shops, and even artists themselves. “Almost without exception, artists in our collection are pleased about it,” says Sacco. “It took us a long time to understand that artists want an audience, and we’re giving them that audience, we’re celebrating their work.”
She adds: “Once you get past our name, we’re never derogatory.”
Her favorite, and mine, is an oil on canvas, “Sunday on the Pot with George,” which pictures a porcine man in his underwear sitting on what appears to be a chamber pot. It is done in the pointillism style of French painter Georges Seurat. “Whoever did that had some real skills, and it’s a particular man,” says Sacco.
An added bonus: It will make you laugh out loud.
There’s sentimental, if not artistic, value in “Lucy in the Field with Flowers.” As the museum’s first piece, Sacco is attached to it. Like most of the exhibits, its origins were unknown.
But after the museum’s first book was published, Sacco got a call from a woman who exclaimed, “That’s my Nana!” As it turns out, the woman’s grandmother had died and the maiden aunt living with Nana was bereft, so the family decided to have a painting made of Nana. Somehow, years later, the piece found its way to the trash bin.
“The family was so thrilled they ended up buying dozens of copies of the book,” says Sacco.
Of the nudes in the museum’s permanent collection, Sacco says they were done by “people who don’t know anatomy” or those who “have obviously never seen a naked person.”
Paul McMurtry knows that people enjoy the museum, and he’s getting e-mails asking him to please bring MOBA back. But his business is the theater business.
“We’re one of the top art house theaters in the Boston area,” he says. “We’re reevaluating every square inch of the space. Because of the limited space, we want to focus on screens first.”
McMurtry is proud of the fact that the Dedham Community Theater screens critically acclaimed films, including Oscar winners such as “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.”
Yes, but what about “Alien Adam and Eve,” which portrays Adam and Eve in a suburban backyard, picking apples, with an apple pie cooling on a window ledge in a house. Who baked the pie?
There may yet be some hope for this iconic painting, and George on the pot, and Lucy in the field, and the others. McMurtry will only say, “Once the dust settles, there might be some space out back.”