Baltimore filmmaker John Waters stands between a portrait of himself by Catherine Opie and a piece of cardboard with the word "CRAZY" scrawled on it, attributed to Waters' father. The pieces are among 83 works of contemporary art from Waters' personal collection which are featured in a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Baltimore writer and filmmaker John Waters is no stranger to viewers of late night television talk shows, but this week he appeared on morning television as well.

Waters and the Baltimore Museum of Art were featured yesterday in a six-minute segment on CBS News Sunday Morning, one of the most-watched broadcasts on television.

Correspondent Rita Braver’s report focused on the BMA’s current exhibit of art work that Waters owns and plans to donate to the museum when he dies, entitled “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection.” Braver interviewed Waters at the museum in late January. 

The exhibit features about 90 of the 375 works that Waters, 76, plans to donate to the museum, including pieces by well-known artists such as Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. They came from Waters’ residences in Baltimore, New York and San Francisco. The show was organized by Leila Grothe, the museum’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, with Catherine Opie and Jack Pierson as guest curators.  

Braver started the segment by observing that Waters’ collection is what people might expect to see from a movie director known as the “Pope of Trash” and the “Prince of Puke”: works that are “quirky and provocative.”

She accompanied Waters on a tour of the exhibit, stopping to examine various pieces along the way.

Of Richard Tuttle’s work entitled “Peace and Time,” Waters told Braver, “I love this piece, because it basically looks like I had a niece that failed shop class in summer camp.”

Of an untitled sculpture by Paul Gabrielli that sits on the floor and consists of a crumpled cardboard box secured with padlocks and a chain, Waters asked, “What lunatic would have a box and put these kinds of locks on it that anybody could break in – a cardboard box? This is obviously a crazy person’s secret that I love.”

Braver asks Waters what speaks to him as a collector.

“It’s something that stops me in my tracks, surprises me,” he answers.

Waters told Braver that the BMA is where he first learned about the power of art to spark a reaction in others, after his parents brought him there when he was a boy.

He said he bought a postcard of a painting by Joan Miro at the gift shop and showed it to his friends. “I took it home and hung it up and all the kids went, ‘Oh, it’s ugly,’” he recalled. “That’s when I started collecting art.”

Waters acknowledged that his art collecting reflects the same sensibility as his movies, books and other creations.

“It’s all one piece of taste,” he said. “It’s all the same thing, what I do. I’m trying to make you laugh at something that you are nervous about laughing about, and you’re walking on the edge of what you can make fun of and what you can get away with at the same time.”

Grothe told Braver that the museum’s leaders were “ecstatic” when Waters announced his gift.

“John is a legend of Baltimore, and his collection really reflects so much of what we think John is,” she said.

Braver’s report included film clips and other information about Waters’ films, such as the fact that “Pink Flamingos” has been added to the National Film Registry maintained by the U.S. Library of Congress. She also noted that the museum named its all-gender restrooms after Waters, in honor of his gift.

“I wanted the bathrooms,” Waters said, “just because I thought nobody’s done that and I thought it would be humorous, it would go along with everything in my career, and it did.”

The CBS program was valuable exposure for Waters and the museum. According to Adweek and others, it averaged 5.7 million total viewers per episode in the 2021-2022 season, including 972,000 viewers between the ages of 25 and 54.

“Coming Attractions” will be on display at the BMA, 10 Art Museum Drive, until April 16. Braver noted that the museum hasn’t put a price tag on Waters’ gift but “it’s said to be worth millions.”

Her report ended with Waters, whose movies feature characters on the fringe of society, reflecting on his status as a trustee of the museum.

“I’m now an insider,” Waters said. “That’s the final irony, really, because I don’t want to be an outsider anymore. Everybody wants to be that. I want to be an insider, because they have the power to change things.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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