In something of a surprise move last August, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art suddently shut its doors and transferred its assets and permanent collection to the Society of Illustrators, a 100-year-old institution dedicated to the art and business of illustration. In a phone conversation Annelle Miller, executive director of the Society of Illustrators, discussed the transfer, MoCCA’s permanent collection and the upcoming MoCCA Fest, the annual festival of independent and self-published comics, outlining her view of the future of MoCCA and its programs under SoI's direction.
While the sudden transfer of MoCCA’s assets and programs was surprising to many members of the comics community, the move also ended a long period of concern about the financial future of MoCCA—an important institution on the New York comics scene—and the preservation of its programs and MoCCA Fest (this year slated for April 6 and 7). Under SoI, which has an annual budget of over $1 million, the transfer has the potential to stabilize the museum’s previously uncertain finances and guarantees a long term vision for the future of the MoCCA, which will now function as a distinct and branded part of SoI.
“Everyone here at the museum, my board, was very supportive,” Miller said. “[The deal] happened quickly in about three weeks.” In July 2012 Miller received a phone call from MoCCA’s former director, Ellen Abramowitz, who said that MoCCA was “in trouble” and asked if the SoI would be interested in taking over its operations.
“I said yes immediately, there was no other answer,” Miller told PWCW, emphasizing that SoI has always viewed comics and cartooning as an intregral part of the illustration profession and instrumental to SoI’s mission as a museum. “SoI has always embraced comics and cartoons,” she said. From there the transfer happened quickly, she explained. MoCCA's permanent collection has been moved to a large storage space in Long Island City and materials are being catalogued and digitized. “We helped them pack and get out of their [SoHo] space. It was kind of crazy,” Miller said. Now MoCCA has taken up residence on East 63rd St., in the historic SoI building and MoCCA is now a featured division with its own galleries on the second floor. The program's lectures and workshops (like Dare to Draw) continue in the new location; works from the MoCCA permanent collection and new exhibitions—including the Art of Harvey Kurtzman and an exhibit on Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith—will continue with new shows every 2 to 3 months.
Most important, however, is the future of MoCCA Fest, its annual comics convention, held the last few years at the Lexington Avenue Armory in Manhattan. While the show is a key part of the indie comics event schedule, in recent years exhibitor complaints have increased and Miller said she embraced the opportunity to not only continue the show but revitalize it, responding to the show's problems and promise. “All along we knew we would keep the MoCCA name and programming and lectures,” she explained, “and the festival franchise. Even though we really don’t know what we’re doing.”
SoI has not wasted time putting a stamp on the show. Miller put together a steering committee of exhibitors, retailers and New York comics veterans that includes librarian Karen Green, CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein, and former DC Comics president Paul Levitz, among others, to “help us and to reach out to the comics community,” Miller said. And this year MoCCA will present the Awards of Excellence, a juried prize to be presented to the best works and artists on display at the show. SoI has organized a jury composed of former Vertigo director Karen Berger, Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth and artists Nora Krugh, David Mazzucchelli and Paul Pope. Jurists will walk the floor of the show, pick 10-15 finalists, and present awards to six of the artists. Once chosen, the works will be acquired by the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which will place them in its newly organized MoCCA Arts Festival Collection.
Miller also said the SoI is looking at the MoCCA Fest venue at the historic Lexington Avenue 69th Regiment Armory. She said the Society was “locked into the Armory contract and its table prices,” but she also noted that the contract with the Armory—which offered “a $30,000 base price with nothing included,”—was being examined and she did not rule out moving the show to another venue in the future. But SoI has also immediately moved to expand amenities—there will be signage now as well as a café, AV equipment, a lounge, a show journal and other upgrades. This year’s MoCCA Festival show will cost SoI about $85,000 to hold. “I believe things must be done in a certain way,” Miller explained, “It will be costly but it will be great. But it would be irresponsible not to check out other places for the amount of money we’re spending.”
Miller said she has been in discussions with publisher/exhibitors and emphasized that “we’re really focused on art and artists and the relationship between MoCCA and MoCCA Fest,” noting that “there has been a disconnect in the past.” She said winners of the Awards of Excellence will also be exhibited at the SoI after the show. “It will reconnect the works to the museum.”
Despite the sudden transfer, MoCCA and its programs seem to be in very good hands at the Society of Illustrators. “The Society of Illustrators' mission is to embrace all genres of illustration,” Miller said with an obvious combination of enthusiasm, delight and professional accomplishment. “Comics and cartooning are an important part of our history. That’s what we do here.”