John Waters, Baltimore’s self-proclaimed “Pope of Trash,” announced Wednesday that he’s bequeathing some of the most precious things he owns — approximately 375 prints, paintings and photographs — to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In a show of appreciation, museum officials will rename two bathrooms in the East Lobby “The John Waters Restrooms” in honor of the cult filmmaker and visual artist. The domed room in the European art galleries also will be christened “The John Waters Rotunda.”
Waters sees the gesture as similar to the impulse that resulted in “Fountain,” Marcel Duchamp’s famous 1917 sculpture of a urinal.
“Renaming the bathrooms was my idea right from the beginning,” he said. “They thought I was kidding and I said, ‘No, I’m serious.' It’s in the spirit of the artwork I collect, which has a sense of humor and is confrontational and minimalist and which makes people crazy.”
Though Waters and museum officials declined to estimate the value of the collection, it includes the works of such artists as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman — and Waters himself. The collection contains nearly 90 prints, sculptures, videos and mixed-media pieces created by Waters, who was the subject of a major retrospective at the BMA in 2018 and who has exhibited his work at the prestigious Venice Biennale.
“John is an international icon and more importantly, a local treasure,” said Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s director.
“The collection is extraordinary because it demonstrates John’s reach into the cultural world and his social dexterity," Bedford continued. "On the one hand, there is this embrace of public vulgarity. But he’s also this incredibly centered, tender, decent and dignified human being. The works can be vulgar and glib, but they’re just as often aesthetically refined. That’s what makes John so dear to this city.”
It was in the 1950s that the young Waters first paid a trip to the BMA and discovered art’s power to generate strong emotions. The boy purchased a $2 poster of a Joan Miró artwork from the museum gift shop and taped it to the bedroom wall of his Lutherville home.
“The other kids said 'why would you hang that up?’” recalled Waters, making a disgusted noise in his throat to mimic that long-ago reaction. “That’s when I realized that art could provoke, shock and cause trouble. At that moment, I became a collector for life.”
Waters' donation is a restricted gift, which means it can never be sold. But the artist said that negotiations for the bequest began long before the BMA made a controversial decision to auction off three artworks from its collection, including Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” to raise $65 million to fund diversity initiatives.
The sale was called off on Oct. 28, just hours before two of the paintings were scheduled to go under the gavel at Sotheby’s Auction House. Opponents claimed selling the works would have violated a policy of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which sets ethical guidelines for the field.
In the midst of the controversy, two former chairmen of the BMA’s board of trustees said they would rescind $50 million in gifts they’d planned to make to the museum.
Though Waters sided with opponents of the proposed sale, the public dispute didn’t dissuade him from going ahead with his gift.
“I was against the deaccessioning,” he said, using the art world parlance for selling works owned by a museum. “But I’m not going to penalize the Baltimore museum. I wanted the art that I’ve been collecting for 50 years to go to the place that taught me from the very beginning how powerful and how exciting art is and how much trouble it can cause.”
Waters had personal relationships with many of the artists he collected, and the meticulous files he assembled on the artworks will be part of the bequest. The gift agreement also stipulates that an inaugural exhibition of Waters’ collection will be held by the end of 2025, and that five artworks, including one created by Waters, will be prominently displayed in the museum at all times.
Waters is already having fun imagining which pieces will be on view — and in which parts of the museum. The John Waters Restrooms, he thinks, might be a logical choice. The filmmaker began to mentally run through his collection and tick off the possibilities:
“I have a piece by Tony Tasset called ‘I peed in my pants,'" Waters said. "There’s ’Wedged Lump’ by Mike Kelley that looks exactly like a giant turd. I also have George Stoll’s chiffon toilet paper.
"I have a lot of art that would work in a bathroom.”