Melanie Jacobson was on the hunt for covid-relief cash in October when she happened to flip to HBO. As fortune would have it, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver was announcing a contest to offer financial help to museums in need. The catch was, they had to be willing to exhibit his freshly acquired collection of three “masterpiece” paintings: a still-life of ties, a portrait of TV host Wendy Williams eating a lamb chop, plus — his “pièce de résistance” — amorous rats in the buff.
Jacobson is a board member for the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minn. — right where a star was born. Her catch was, the institution shares a building with the very G-rated Children’s Discovery Museum, which meant that “I knew we would not be able to show the rat painting with certain private parts,” she said by phone this week.
So with blessing from board leadership, Jacobson submitted a proposal to the “Last Week Tonight” contest with one stipulation, she recalled: “I’m going to have to put pants on the rat.” Her entry included one other option: that the two anthropomorphic rodents — both as nude as a Rodin — could be covered with an “old-fashioned Minnesota quilt.”
“John Oliver’s a comedian,” she recalled telling her board. “Maybe they’ll go along with it.”
Oliver and his show indeed went along with it. “Last Week Tonight” announced last month via video that the Judy Garland Museum was one of five winning proposals, selected from more than 400 applicants. The show will give each winning institution a $10,000 donation, and another $10,000 to a food bank in each museum’s region.
That infusion, plus the anticipated spike in admissions thanks to Oliver’s spotlight, is “phenomenal,” said Janie Heitz, executive director of the Judy Garland Museum — where she says revenue fell off 70 percent earlier in the pandemic — and the Children’s Discovery Museum. The five-stop national tour of Oliver’s “Masterpiece Gallery” kicked off Tuesday at the Minnesota museum, where it will run through Sept. 28.
The tour will then travel to the four other winning recipients: the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago (Oct. 5-26), the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore (Nov. 1-22), the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum & Media Center in Detroit (Nov. 30-Dec. 21) and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco (Jan. 4-25).
“Museums weren’t hot on the hit parade of what needed help,” said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, so she was “moved” by Oliver’s offer.
Hoffberger was also struck by Oliver’s cheeky approach to his collection. In the video, he describes his “magnificent” acrylic-on-plywood portrait of Williams; a Judith Pond Kudlow oil painting of “sad” neckties, which he presumed was “exploring the absence of her husband,” former Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow; and “Stay Up Late,” the vermin-love watercolor-on-paper by Pennsylvania artist Brian Swords created as if “Monet had a furry period.”
Each artwork has a history on “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver acquired the three-decade-old “Stay Up Late” to enliven his white-as-a-void studio walls early in the pandemic. Last year, Williams gave Oliver her portrait — painted by her show’s art director, Michael Lee Scott — after Oliver called her at-home show “an oasis of truth in a world full of lies.” And Oliver sought to buy a Kudlow painting on the cheap last year after her husband said that she’d applied for a small-business bailout during the pandemic — a loan the comedian mocked on his show given the Kudlows’ wealth and government clout.
(A deputy White House press secretary at the time said that the self-employed artist “is a small-business owner and private citizen” and that nothing about the loan was improper. Judith Kudlow declined to comment about her art being part of Oliver’s contest.)
Hoffberger embraced Oliver’s comedy in her proposal, which she said conveyed that “our whole museum has always looked at humor as an achievement much like science, medicine, engineering, art.” She said she wrote from her heart and thanked Oliver for his action during such a trying time, as her closed space even lost its extra revenue from event rentals.
Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum, said that “fun was the word that came to mind when considering Oliver’s contest. The words ‘rat erotica’ may have even been in my proposal.”
His museum was shuttered for 11 of the first 12 months of the pandemic, obeying San Francisco’s closure mandates. Now, Farago is hopeful that the “Last Week Tonight” exhibit will “engage the local audience that has been in hibernation thus far.”
As for that rat erotica, it is now on view in Minnesota, albeit with segments of the picture blocked — partly by black “jogger shorts” affixed to the glass on top of the frame.
Altering the presentation of “Stay Up Late” required “different layers of approval” from the HBO show’s end, Jacobson said, before she eventually got a message from producers: “Operation Rat Pants a go.” (“Last Week Tonight” declined to make someone available for comment about the exhibit.)
“They did such a nice job — it came to us with pants on already and it’s really cute,” Jacobson said. But when she and Heitz unboxed the delivery, they noticed that the artist had painted a container of K-Y lubricant on the shelf.
What to do? “We put a frame up [over it] that says: ‘I heart Judy.’ ”
And is the Garland Museum team okay with the two other paintings? “We’re proud to have those, too — it’s a beautiful, intelligent strong woman eating a healthy piece of protein,” Jacobson said, “and a beautiful painting of a woman [honoring] her husband’s strong work ethic.”
Jacobson was making final preparations for the opening-night after-party as she spoke. So what was on the menu to fit the occasion?
“Lamb meatballs. Sugar-cookie ties.”