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Works currently on display at MOCCA.
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The second floor of the Society of Illustrators building was recently transformed into every kid’s vision of a perfect Saturday morning: chock-full of cartoons and comics galore.
That’s because the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, better known as MoCCA, recently transferred its assets from their original location in SoHo to the Society of Illustrators’ well-established residence on the Upper East Side. Now, the print work of famed artists, from Gene Hazelton, a primary contributor on The Flintstones, to Tommy Castillo, who has worked on darker portrayals of the Batman character, have the entire second floor of the Society of Illustrators’ building to call home.
The move came on the heels of some confusion over MoCCA’s location. The abrupt closure of their original physical space on July 9, as documented on the organization’s Facebook page, came as a shock to several members, eliciting disappointment, despite the promise that a new venue to house the organization’s permanent collection would be announced shortly. Although the reason for the closure of the space in SoHo is not made clear in MoCCA’s press release, comics blogs and their commenters have implied that the Museum may have been forced to shut its doors due to difficulty fundraising.
While some members of MoCCA may have doubts about the new location—in that losing physical autonomy could potentially hurt the organization—the change may ultimately offer a mutually beneficial relationship for MoCCA and the Society of Illustrators. After all, according to comicsbeat.com, the Society of Illustrators has itself suffered from monetary troubles, owing to the decline of illustration as a popular art, and collaboration with MoCCA may be just the kind of energy the institution needs to rejuvenate.
Karen Green, Butler Library’s graphic novels librarian, served on the Board of Trustees at MoCCA before its move and remains optimistic for the changes ahead. When asked if the transfer of assets would work out in MoCCA’s favor, she replies, “No question. The Society is a long-standing institution, and they own their own building,” whereas MoCCA, as Green phrases it, “was located on the fourth floor of a landmark building that allowed no external signage”—a lack of advertising potential that would surely give any niche museum its fair share of woes.
Aside from the virtues of the new space, Green adds, “There is a thematic overlap in the two missions, and many artists were members of both organizations.” This sentiment has been echoed by many in response to the announcement, especially given that the Society of Illustrators plans to continue the event for which MoCCA was most famous—the MoCCA Fest, which takes place every year at the Lexington Ave. Armory—and intends to honor current MoCCA memberships through the end of the year. As Green noted, “The commenting public appears to think the transfer to the Society is a great development.”
Viewing the pieces in MoCCA’s private collection, which have now been on display since Sept. 4, offers some perspective into MoCCA members’ hesitation to see the assemblage lose its own private location. The pieces, which hang against bold red walls, provide a glimpse into the artists’ processes in a way that the meticulously finished pieces of the illustrated collections cannot.
“The majority of the works that MoCCA hung on its gallery walls was original comic art,” Green says. “That means it was larger—often, much larger—than what you see in print, and it showed the signs of the artist’s craft: paste-ups, Wite-Out, corrections, marginal messages to the printer,” and so on. The exhibits at the Society of Illustrators also highlight the comic artist’s process by displaying the various iterations of the work before it went to print. In this way, although illustrated and comic and cartoon art are technically the same medium, there is a certain disconnect between the illustrated pieces of the other galleries and the vivacity of the cartoons.
Still, according to art handler Johnny Dombrowski, an employee of the Society of Illustra- tors, the Society is doing its best to give MoCCA the individual attention it deserves. “I never got to go [to MoCCA’s old location],” Dombrowski says, “but I’ve seen photos, and they tried to stack the works to use as much space as possible.” The second floor at the Society of Illustrators is far larger than MoCCA’s original location, which allowed the exhibit’s curators to better emphasize individual pieces by spacing them farther apart. “We’ve been trying to give it as much press as we can,” Dombrowski added, citing a new section of their newsletter, which is to be permanently set aside for MoCCA and its news.
Although the success of the merger can’t be judged just yet, it does reveal something about the broader context of niche art in New York City: Condensing projects doesn’t mean that either the Society of Illustrators or MoCCA is compromising its own agenda. Rather, the organizations intend to use each other’s best attributes—MoCCA’s attraction to youth, and the Society of Illustrators’ prestige—to increase their strength as a unit.
The result? According to Dombrowski, for comics and cartoon lovers, it’s something of a fantasy. “I grew up on comic books, so there’s some pieces I go crazy over and have to stop to look at every time I pass them,” he says. “It’s really cool seeing all the different stages, and the cell animation, too.”
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