Why you should care
Because this quirky “museum” is part of a Seattle that is disappearing.
There’s good art and there’s bad art.
Then there’s really bad art, the kind that even a thrift shop would reject. Surreal paint-by-number landscapes, a monkey wearing a crown, the Last Supper recast with dogs, clowns and a variety of indeterminate creatures. At first you may cringe, your eyes closing from sheer revulsion. But then you move in closer to try and figure out just what the artist was thinking when creating a wall-size panorama of Jesus Christ out of marshmallow Peeps.
Admittedly, it’s sometimes an impossible task, but at the Official Bad Art Museum of Art in Seattle, countless people make a valiant effort. Located inside Seattle’s Café Racer near the University of Washington, the OBAMA launched in 2007 when an adjacent storefront opened up and owner Kurt Geissel decided to expand. He wanted to decorate the new space in homage to his patrons, a loyal following of artists, musicians, writers and other creative types. And he knew that regulars JoDavid and Marlow Harris had a great selection of Paint by Numbers and other quirky art. They struck a deal and the OBAMA was born, though the name wasn’t their first choice. The Bad Art Museum in the Boston area wasn’t crazy about sharing its name, so the three came up with something different.
“Some of the art is great, and some truly god-awful.”
Charyn Pfeuffer, Official Bad Art Museum of Art patron
Which is all well and good, because as Geissel puts it, “Our art is worse.” You might think people would be lining up outside to donate their bad art, but he says that’s not necessarily the case. “It’s harder to find bad art than you think,” he says. “This isn’t art by people who lack skill; it’s more about good intentions gone bad. They may have started with a good idea, but sometimes something just goes horribly wrong.”
“Some of the art is great, and some truly god-awful, but the overall experience is memorable,” says writer Charyn Pfeuffer, who lived nearby for a few years.
If making a pilgrimage for ugly art isn’t your jam, then come for the heart-stopping food. The menu is standard pub fare — chili, burgers, tater tots — but the star is the Wonder Wiener, a hot dog topped with bacon, cream cheese, green chilies and grilled onion, which The Boston Globe once called the quintessential Seattle hot dog.
While the space seats about 50, it’s not unusual for 75 people to fill the place, as it’s a popular spot for local groups to meet, from the Vespa Club of Seattle and a group of sci-fi readers and writers, to salsa dancers and music nights that feature everything from jazz to opera. As such, Geissel considers Café Racer and the OBAMA to be more of a community center than a restaurant or an art gallery.
Pfeuffer agrees. “This little cafe has a brought a rock-solid sense of community to a pocket of Seattle that ebbs and flows with every college semester,” she says.
Today, it doesn’t take long to recognize the role such a neighborhood hangout plays in a city that is rapidly changing. “These kinds of places are disappearing fast,” says Geissel, who leases the building from a longtime landlord who respects the ethos of the neighborhood, and so he thinks that both the café and OBAMA will be around for a while.
So what’s Geissel’s favorite piece of bad art? “I love them all,” he says, though he does admit to one he’d happily toss into the fireplace after first burning all the furniture. He’s offered to buy patrons a beer if they guessed correctly, but no one has ever come close, he says.
Here’s a hint: It has beach glass in it.