John Waters gives back to the BMA with pledge to donate art collection

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John Waters (c) Greg Gorman

Filmmaker John Waters says his first introduction to the world of fine art came when he was a boy and his parents took him to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

After he began making films, the BMA was the first institution to give him a retrospective.

The museum has also exhibited his work as a visual artist, including a 2018 retrospective entitled “John Waters: Indecent Exposure.”

Now Waters is giving back: He and the museum’s leaders announced this week that he will be leaving the bulk of his fine art collection to the museum when he dies.

His collection will also be part of a public exhibit at the museum sometime in the next five years. 

In return, at his request, the museum will name two restrooms after him as well as a rotunda in the European art galleries.

“I fought for that,” Waters said, referring to The John Waters Restrooms in the East Lobby at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “People thought I was kidding.”

Although Waters is best known for his films, books and spoken-word shows, and his recent forays into fashion modeling and country music, this is no small gift.

Waters, 74, has been collecting art since the 1950s, when he bought a $2 Joan Miro poster at the museum’s gift shop during one of his first visits.

The promised gift includes 372 works by more than 125 different artists, including Waters himself.

The breakdown is 288 works by artists other than Waters, including Diane Arbus, Richard Artschwager, Thomas Demand, Nan Goldin, Roy Lichtenstein, Lee Lozano, Christian Marclay, Catherine Opie, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Gary Simmons, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and Christopher Wool.

The collection also includes 87 prints, sculptures, mixed-media, and video pieces by Waters. It will make the BMA the greatest repository of his work.

Waters said the donation is his way of thanking the museum for all that it has meant to him and done for him over the years. He said he always intended to give his collection to the museum, if its board would accept it, and he didn’t have any other institution in mind.

“I’m really thrilled that my home town is getting all the work that I’ve spent my whole life collecting,” he said in a phone interview. “It should end up here, where I first was challenged by contemporary art.”

Waters said he can still remember his early visits to the museum, back in the 1950s, when he went with his parents.

“I loved going there,” he said. “I remember the rental gallery or whatever it was called, and the book shop and everything. When I was a kid, that was a huge world that I was turned onto. Thank God my parents took me.”

Early in his movie-making career, long before he made Hairspray, then-deputy director and chief curator Brenda Richardson gave him his first film retrospective.

“That’s where I got the name Prince of Puke, because people came out against it – the taxpayers paying for a John Waters’ thing — and The Sun wrote an editorial called The Prince of Puke.”

The BMA “gave me that before it was safe to…show me in museums or anything like that,” he said. “So that’s just another reason I want to reward my hometown for always believing in me.”

Neither the museum nor the donor have disclosed what Waters’ gift might be worth. Asma Naeem, the museum’s Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator, said, “it is one of the largest gifts of art in recent history and the most personal and individualized, showing the true stamp of the donor’s taste, eye, and predilections.”

“John’s generosity, friendship and commitment to his hometown are boundless,” said Clair Zamoiski Segal, the museum’s board chair. “We look forward to collaborating with John on the presentation of his collection gift.”

Waters said the work he’s donating will come either from one of his residences or places where he works. He said the art he’s giving to the museum represents the vast majority of what he owns, although he’s saving some pieces to leave to friends.

“It’s hanging in my house in Baltimore, in my apartment in New York, in my apartment in San Francisco,” he said about the art he’s donating. “I take art with me every summer to my summer rental in Provincetown. Some is hanging in my art studio and some is hanging in my office. But every single piece is hung up. I don’t buy art that I can’t hang up. I have nothing in storage.”

Waters added that he doesn’t buy art to make money. “I’ve only sold one piece in my life, and that was because it was too big to fit anywhere.”

The gift comes at a time when the museum can use some upbeat news.

For much of the fall, the museum has been embroiled in a controversy related to its plan to sell three valuable works of art to raise $65 million to support programs and initiatives intended to promote diversity and social equity within the institution.

While the museum’s diversity goals have been praised as laudable, the sale process proved to be controversial largely because the pieces targeted for sale were three of the museum’s most valuable: 3 (1987-1988) by Brice Marden; 1957-G (1957) by Clyfford Still, and The Last Supper (1986) by Andy Warhol.

At least two prospective donors said they were cancelling gifts reportedly worth millions because they objected to the museum’s plan, and the sale was “paused” on the day that two of the pieces were scheduled to go up for auction.

Waters said the timing of the announcement about his donation turned out to be “weird” because of the controversy over the proposed sale, but it was always supposed to be made this fall. He said his donation has been in the works for more than a year, long before the auction plan surfaced, and was going smoothly but had been kept under wraps.

Waters explained that he first approached the museum about making a gift in 2019, after his Indecent Exposure exhibit came down. He said the donation had been accepted and he and museum representatives were close to working out the final details when the controversy flared up.

Anne Mannix-Brown, the museum’s senior director of communications, confirmed that the announcement of Water’s gift wasn’t moved up or pushed back because of the controversy.

Waters is an enormous fan of Warhol and even devoted a chapter of his latest book to him. He was also on the museum’s accessioning committee when Richardson and then-director Arnold Lehman acquired The Last Supper.

Waters had been publicly silent about the sale of the three paintings until recently. He said this week that while he supports the museum’s goal of promoting diversity, he didn’t support the sale of the three paintings.

At the same time, he said, he made up his mind a long time ago that he wanted to give his collection to his hometown museum, and that wasn’t going to change because of the sale controversy.

He said he sees the donation as a way to show how grateful he is for everything the museum has done for him and for the relationships he’s had with museum leaders over the years, from Richardson and Lehman to Segal and director Christopher Bedford.  His gift is restricted, which means the museum can’t sell it.

“It was weird timing because this gift was completely worked out and about ready to be announced and then the controversy happened,” he said.

“I wasn’t for selling those paintings, but at the same time I wasn’t going to turn against the museum and take my gift away just because of one thing…It couldn’t really color my gift going to the home museum, which I always wanted it to go to.”

Waters stressed that he supports Bedford’s push for greater diversity in acquisitions, programming and hiring.

“No curator could ever come to Baltimore and start a job in a city that is 70 percent African-American without completely having that vision ahead of them.”

If he were on the board, Waters said, “my ideas would probably be even more radical than what they came up with I probably would have sold the Blue Nude [Henri Matisse’s 1907 masterpiece in the museum’s Cone Collection] and given the money to Gays Against Guns. How about that?”

Ed Gunts


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1 COMMENT

  1. Ed Gunts’ articles are always enlightening, well-timed, investigative and well-written. It is no wonder he is always on the top of your weekly most read articles. Don’t let that talent go!

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