City's ToonSeum growing up
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At a time when many arts groups are cutting back or joining together to save expenses, the ToonSeum is about to leave the mother ship and strike out on its own.
On Nov. 8, the cartoon museum (toonseum.org) will move from its space in the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side into its own storefront digs at 945 Liberty Ave., just across the street from the August Wilson Center, Downtown.
It will be the nation's third museum devoted exclusively to the cartoon arts.
"As any cartoonist knows, at some point you have to move out of your parents' basement," said ToonSeum founder and director Joe Wos.
One reason for the move is space. At 1,000 square feet, the new location will be five times the size of the current one.
The other reason is to broaden the kind of artwork the ToonSeum displays.
"Our own space will give us the ability to present more challenging and provocative work than would have been suitable for The Children's Museum," said Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist and president of the ToonSeum.
"As a political cartoonist, I try to draw cartoons that address important social and political issues that challenge the viewer. At the ToonSeum, we want to mount exhibits with the same goal in mind. Now we can."
"This is an art form," said Mr. Wos, whose personal collection of original works numbers more than 1,000 pieces. "There's a perception that cartoons are just for kids, but there's a lot more to them than that."
He cited the example of "The Montgomery Story," the comic book that outlined the method of civil disobedience used during the Montgomery bus boycott.
"People were told to read it, memorize it and destroy it because if they were caught with it, they could be killed," he said. "It inspired the teenagers to do the sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter. It has graphic displays of lynchings and violence that are not suitable for young children, but it's an important part of our history."
As for expanding when so many others are contracting, Mr. Wos said, "We're doing this in a very limited, sustainable way. We're not jumping into a huge building. It's a small space in a great location, and a small staff, mostly volunteers and myself."
The new space will rent for $1,200 a month. The move is being financed in part by a grant from the Grable Foundation. Mr. Wos hopes his annual budget of $70,000 will increase to $100,000 over the next few years.
The economics of the cartoon world are very different than those in more traditional arts, Mr. Wos said.
"The industry is doing unbelievably well. There's a tremendous enthusiasm among the public for the cartoon arts that crosses generations and incomes.
"Of the 10 top-grossing films last year, eight were connected to cartoons or superhero comic books. San Diego's Comic-Con is one of the largest conferences in the world, and it's all based on comics. Barron's magazine last year did an article on the top 10 investments you should have made before the crash, and comic book art was right up there."
On the auction block, cartoons and comics are bringing in record prices, said Barry Sandoval, who oversees the growing comic market for Heritage Auctions in Dallas, which brought in more than $20 million last year in comic art sales.
The record price for a Sunday comic strip so far is $133,525 for the April 10, 1955 "Peanuts" strip by Charles M. Schultz, sold by Heritage in 2007. And the cover of the original Batman No. 11 comic book from 1942 brought in $195,500 in 2005.
"Comic art is just growing in popularity as a hobby," Mr. Sandoval said. "The demand is so high because it's a slice of Americana that everybody likes."
The ToonSeum, currently under the fiscal sponsorship of the Children's Museum, is in the process of obtaining its own nonprofit status. The organization will be selling annual memberships for $30 a year or $50 for families. One-time visitors will be asked to donate $4 each, or $3 for children.
The new gallery will have a permanent collection with some of the most famous cartoon icons, from Mickey Mouse to Sponge Bob Square Pants. In addition, there will be showings by local and independent artists, beginning with Ed Piskor, hands-on cartooning workshops and guest artists from around the world.
The main gallery will have new shows every two to three months. The first of these, Enchanted Drawings, will cover 100 years of animation and feature original art going back a century to Gertie the Dinosaur, created by Winsor McCay, who is considered the grandfather of animation.
"There will be lots of superheroes, and we'll take on more challenging art, too," Mr. Wos said.
Other shows set for next year will feature women cartoonists, the largest collection of anime art from the film "Akira," and cartoon canines.
Mr. Wos said the Children's Museum made the ToonSeum possible and called it "one of our parents." The other, he said, is the Charles M. Schulz Museum in California. Jean Schulz, widow of the "Peanuts" creator, was one of the ToonSeum's earliest financial and moral supporters.
The other two museums devoted exclusively to cartoons are the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City. Then there's the single-artist Charles M. Schulz Museum and Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, which also has toys. Joining them in a few years will be the International Museum of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Mr. Wos, a performance cartoonist who appears at schools, libraries and festivals, is the son of a Braddock steel worker. He's been presenting at the Children's Museum for 18 years and collecting animation, strips and comic books for 20. He started the ToonSeum two years ago with works from his own collection, and has donated 100 pieces. Other collectors and artists have donated about 500 pieces, he said.
Now a resident of Penn Hills and a father of three, he said his own 4-year-old daughter recently demonstrated how hard it is to get respect for the cartoon arts.
"She loves to draw," he said. "I asked her if she wanted me to help her, and she said, 'Daddy, you're a cartoonist. I'm an artist.' "
First Published August 29, 2009 12:00 am