As It Happens

John Waters says it's 'fitting' to have an art museum's bathrooms named after him

John Waters has a massive collection of art that he says makes people "furious," and he's leaving it all to his hometown museum.

The cult film director is donating 372 artworks that makes people 'furious' to the Baltimore Museum of Art

Director John Waters has promised to donate 372 artworks to the Baltimore Museum of Art. To pay tribute, the museum will name its bathrooms after him. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)


John Waters has a massive collection of art that he says makes people "furious," and he's leaving it all to his hometown museum.

In exchange for the bequest of 372 pieces, the campy cult film director asked the Baltimore Museum of Art to name its bathrooms in his honour — a fitting tribute for the man who calls himself the "Pope of Trash."

The collection includes some of Waters' own work, as well as pieces by 125 artists, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman and more. 

"John's generosity, friendship, and commitment to his hometown are boundless," Clair Zamoiski Segal, the museum's board chair, said in a press release

Waters spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the collection, the museum and the "ridiculous elitism" of the art world. Here is part of their conversation. 

Mr. Waters, how big an honour is it to have not one, but two washrooms named after you?

I think there might be a third if they ever have ... a trans bathroom that they don't have yet, but I think that might be coming, which will be even more of an honour.

It was my idea. They did also name a rotunda after me in their gallery, but I said, "That's fine, but I really want the bathrooms."

And they kept thinking I was kidding, but I wasn't because I don't want to be too pretentious, you know. I want to keep my gifts down to Earth. And maybe people can meet there?

But of course, it's a mockery of those who do give great gifts and then have halls named after them, buildings named after them, because they've given a donation. So you wanted to avoid that, then?

Well, I wanted to comment on it and not be too grand. And [I] know that my collection is a good one, and they would have given me other stuff, but I just thought this was more with my sense of humour and the kind of art, and my career and everything, it just seemed more fitting to me.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is where Waters says he first learned about art. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

What's, I guess, the point of view of your collection?

All art that lasted in history made people insane when it first came out. Andy Warhol put the abstract expressionists out of business in one night with that soup can. People were furious. Then minimalism made people furious. Graffiti art made people furious. Performance art made people furious.

So I love art that makes you furious, because I'm in on it. You finally learn to see differently if you like art. And it's a secret club. It's like a biker gang where you learn a special language, you have to dress a certain way. I love all the ridiculous elitism about the art world. I think it's hilarious.

You're donating 372 pieces. We're talking Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, so many others. What are some of your favourites?

I'm a big fan of Mike Kelly, the artist that's no longer with us, unfortunately. But he was great because his art was all about being a bad boy and Catholic guilt and pitifulness. And I think he did that very well.

I have one piece he did that says, "Thay you love Thatan." And it looks like a devil drawing. But I guess the Satanist had a lisp, and it would be hard to be too threatening with a lisp. So it says "Thay you love Thatan," which does kind of make me laugh. It's in my bedroom. It hangs across from my bed.

There's another installation piece, Gregory Green's work, Table #7, that's bound to make people a bit jumpy. Can you describe that one?

Well, even today, it's probably worse than when I brought it. It's an installation. He lived here for a week and I gave him a room, and he built the room of a mad bomber. And it looked like the cops came in one minute before he ran out the door. He's making three different bombs. It's like all the things you can buy legally in a hardware store. The only thing missing is the gunpowder. And it is quite creepy. It's actually like the person lived there and was discovered. And it's in a hidden room. So it is kind of great, but it is an installation. It is going to the museum and there are like 200 pictures of it. So it can be built exactly again just like this.

Table #7 by Gregory Green is an art installation that John Waters is donating to the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Baltimore Museum of Art)

When you say that you like art, and art should be something that just outrages people and shocks them and makes them think of things they've not thought of before ...

Well, it does all that, but it also makes them think of things in a different way. Once you learn about art, every time you can take a walk, you can see a piece of garbage in the street and that can remind you of one particular art picture. You can look at a tree that might remind you of a different photographer. You can see everything through the eyes of art.

Now it starts to fade away. But then if you keep going to ... galleries, it comes back. You've got to keep reinforcing it. But it makes you see the world in a different way. It's a magic trick.

Is there going to be one show that that so people in Baltimore and elsewhere can come?

It'll be a curated show of it, and that will be before I die because they don't really get the collection until I die.

Will it be interesting to go when people are visiting your collection and watch them. Is that something that would appeal to you?

I guess I'll go to the opening, so I'll see people react, yeah. I'm not going to stand there in a guard's uniform and try to pass so I can eavesdrop like Borat.

But will it be fun to actually see how people respond to things that you have been collecting over all these years?

I know they'll hate some of them. I mean, my father used to say, "You bought that? Oh my God!" He used to go crazy. So, yes, there's many people who will not like what I have, definitely. And that's the kind of art I buy on purpose.

You have said that you have to know good taste to have bad taste. So what is good bad taste?

Well, good bad taste, I would say, is all my movies. I think good bad taste, you're in on it, but you don't make fun of it. You make fun with it. I think that's the thing. You're not condescending. You're not looking down. You're marvelling ... that this a taste that someone actually has.

And that's certainly what Hairspray [is], which is probably the movie people best know of yours.

Hairspray was a Trojan horse that snuck [into] America. You know, it's being done in high schools all over America. And it's a show that sings about two men getting married and interracial dating. I mean, even racists like Hairspray. They don't notice. So it's a Trojan horse. And the only subversive thing I ever did.

I've loved this museum my whole life. It's where I learned about art. And it's my hometown. That's where I want everything to go.- John Waters, filmmaker 

Are you going to be concerned or at all worried that they might [remove] some of your works and sell them?

They can't. It's a restricted gift. That's the term that they use in that. They can't sell it.

Why was that important to you to have that?

Well, for obvious reasons. You know, there was just a giant controversy with the Baltimore Museum selling some other things that I was against them selling. But, you know, that's all right. I'm not on the board. I can disagree. I've loved this museum my whole life. It's where I learned about art. And it's my hometown. That's where I want everything to go.

Are there any works from the collection that you're donating that you would like to have hung in the John Waters restrooms?

Well, no, because, you know, technically, I don't think you can hang any art in the restroom because people could steal it or deface it or it would have light restrictions. 

I can think of things that would be fitting in there. There's one piece, but it's too large, by Tony Tasset, who's a well-known artist, called I Peed in my Pants. And it's just a picture of him after he just did that.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong and Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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