Gathering the 'world's worst art' in British Columbia

An intentional collection of bad art was built up in British Columbia and that was entirely the point.

The purchase of a bad oil painting helped spur a long-running charitable effort

In 1985, Midday describes a collection of the "world's worst art." 0:34

There was nothing good about it and that was entirely the point. 

An intentional collection of bad art was built up in British Columbia, so bad it was good — and so good, it helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a good cause. 

It started when Norman Watt bought an oil painting that caught his eye for all the wrong reasons in 1969.

Some of the 'world's worst art' gets auctioned to raise money for the B.C. Paraplegic Association. 0:35

Described in a 1985 People magazine profile as "a painting of a night camping scene so awful he couldn't wait to show it off," it was the start of a pile of trash-worthy art that grew from there. (You can glimpse a copy of that same work of "art" below.)

Anne Petrie is seen posing with a painting that kicked off Norman Watt's collection of the "world's worst art." (Midday/CBC Archives)

With the help of Watt's friend Bill Goodacre, the collection grew as they scavenged through garage sales, second-hand shops and flea markets in search of poorly painted portraits and compositions where hands and feet are absent (because they are hard to draw).

The Chicago Tribune summed up their general approach to seeking out new treasures.

"One quick test of any artwork's worthiness was to ask the crucial question, 'Is this painting really the pits?'" the paper reported in May of 1985.

'Touchstones of terrible art'

Their collection also became a force for good, with items being auctioned off each year to raise money for the B.C. Paraplegic Association (now known as Spinal Cord Injury BC).

"Bidding is fierce for these touchstones of terrible art," according to a July 1985 segment on the collection that aired on CBC's Midday.

Norman Watt explains why he sought rejection letters for the items in his collection of bad art. 0:53

According to Watt, the inclusion of an official rejection letter helped to drive up the bids on this art — rejection letters that were specifically sought out for that purpose.

Rejection a good thing ... in this case

"The rejection letter and the painting make it really valuable," Watt said, when speaking to Midday back then. "People will pay [$200] to $500 for that combination."

At the time the Midday segment aired, the annual auction had raised a reported $100,000 for its cause.

The total continued to rise in the years to come. In November 1992, the Vancouver Province reported the auction was then in its 16th year and had raised more than $250,000 at that time.

The tradition continued through the 1990s, with more bad art — otherwise destined for obscurity — being put on the auction block each year.