An Interview with MoCCA Founder Lawrence Klein

When The Comics Journal first interviewed Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art founder Lawrence Klein in 2002, MoCCA was just a figment of his imagination. Ten years later, the Journal checked in with him again to talk about how the museum has been able to survive, why building a permanent collect has not been a high priority, and why he left the museum and New York. See the accompanying post for the Journal’s report on the museum today.

Photograph by Caroline Bonnivier for The Berkshire Eagle

MICHAEL DEAN: Let’s go back to the start. There was a change in local government that complicated things for you. Could you talk a little bit about the obstacles you ran into, and how that played out with the local government?

LAWRENCE KLEIN: Well there are two. There were the obstacles of what was going on in New York City but then again, also in hindsight, the same opportunities. Because people wanted to do so much for New York City, for Lower Manhattan, that people were open to new ideas. I guess, looking back, it wasn’t really so much of an obstacle as having to deal with new people. Trying to see the right people. But once I got to see them, they were very excited about what we were doing. [They were] trying to make it happen. I remember, once I was able to get to the right people — because the Giuliani administration was very accessible immediately, and that was great. But then we were trying to get involved with the Bloomberg administration and the new city council. The president of the city council, new borough presidents — so there was a lot of shift in the government. But again, once I got in touch with them, they were very receptive. And then working with the council member at the time, Alan Gerson, was just a wonderful experience. I mean, he was just a great advocate for us. And that’s when early on we got that $70,000 grant from the city council.

DEAN: And that’s basically what you needed from the government: the start-up money, the grant?

Well, technically, that grant wasn’t start-up money. I’m not going to get to technical, because you probably not going to print it. That money could only be used for certain things. You couldn’t use it for operation. We used it for the space, but it was a vote of confidence from the city, saying, “We believe in you. We believe you’re doing such a good job, we’re giving you $70,000.” Which we ended up using for our movable wall and the technology that we got: the flat-screen TVs, the DVDs ... We bought $35,000 worth of technology. If you go into MoCCA now, we still have the three flat-screen TVs, these really nice ones. Now, obviously, they are a bit outdated, but it was a really good thing. It was more what it was saying about what we were doing, and that they believed in us. And we had just gotten this new space. I joked that our office was my apartment and Starbucks. And then we went to Union Square. Actually, the tenant who was right before us: Harvey Pekar! It was a coincidence, but they were the ones in that space before. We shared it with a lawyer; it was never an exhibit space and we never called it an exhibit space. But it was a great home base for us.

DEAN: Was he on your board initially?

Harvey was at some point on the board of advisers, but never on the board itself.

DEAN: And Ted Rall was on the board.

Yeah, that was part of your original —

DEAN: I gave you a hard time about that because he was so controversial at the time.

KLEIN: Well, that was an interesting thing. It was good and bad. All press is good press, and we were getting a lot of press for that. And that’s not why I did it; I did it for a lot of legitimate reasons. And then the Terror Widows cartoon came out, even my dad said to me: “You sure he should be on the board?” You know, what kind of arts organization would we be if we kicked off people for writing something? That would be anti-what we’re doing. That would be wrong. If it was racist or anti-Semitic, in that sense, maybe. But it wasn’t that at all. So I had to stand.

Ted was like, “If you want me off the board, just let me know; you can have my resignation.”

I said, “Absolutely not. Not for that.” I wanted to stand by my convictions. If you look at the original mission statement about First Amendment issues and free speech, what would I be saying if I asked [Ted] to leave the board for a cartoon? That would be totally wrong. And what I wanted to do with MoCCA was to bring different people together: different contingencies, different cliques. Because I found that there was a lot of cliques and different groups out there. Like, if you’re in that group, you can’t do that thing. And I think that’s why Art Spiegelman really appreciated what I was doing and joined the board of advisers. That was a big controversy — I still don’t think that it should have been a big controversy, but it actually helped. By you guys and Danny Hellman and whoever else bringing that issue to the forefront; then after I was able to reach Art and meet with him, he pretty quickly joined the board of advisers. When he got pretty involved, it kind of put a quash on all that. And then we were actually doing what we said we were doing: bringing people together.

DEAN: So it actually broke down some of those cliques.

KLEIN: Exactly. Because no one would have noticed that I brought these different people together, but because other groups made a big deal about it … then when I brought people together like that, it was noticed. And in that sense it was good. And I enjoyed that, and I’m glad. They both have their issues with each other, but I don’t care! I don’t want to get involved with it. I’m trying to build a museum that’s dedicated to comics and cartoons, and can do a lot more in the community. It’s not just about the art on the wall. It’s about what we can do with the stories. What can we do with education, with people, and how we can make a difference in this world. MoCCA started in my mind, because here I am working for these dot-com companies as a corporate attorney. The companies were making loads of money, and yet schools in Harlem, Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side, the arts budgets are being decimated! Music budgets are being decimated! Kids and teachers were having to pay for their own supplies! What’s going on? What’s with the inequity of that? So what can I do to make a difference? That’s where MoCCA came from.

DEAN: Did it all just fall into place then? Were there some difficulties initially?

KLEIN: Well, yeah. The issues that you discussed with me: unsuccessful museums and issues that had come up from those. An auction of selling artwork that may have been in the collection to pay for the mortgage. Those kinds of things were coming up. And so if you were to ask me, “Well, what makes you different?” And it was kind of weird because they’re saying: “We don’t know you; you’re not a cartoonist.” And the ones that were run by cartoonists, with all their best intentions, were the ones that were not doing as well. DC had one for a couple of years.

DEAN: Yeah, DC had one very briefly.

KLEIN: So there was a bunch of those. I was like, “I’m not coming to this like that. I’m coming to it like a corporate attorney. And I want to run it like a business. This is going to be a business that happens to be a museum of comics and cartoon art.” But because I wasn’t coming out of that comic and cartoon art world — I certainly knew enough of the artists, from growing up and being involved and collecting and stuff — but because I wasn’t from that world creating this museum, that was a challenge, getting some of those people involved. So I had to prove myself that it wasn’t about my personal collection or my personal desire to be in comics. It was truly a legitimate passion to make a difference in the world and use this medium to do that. And that’s how I started to convince people. Just by starting to do things and doing them well. Early on, I would say, “If we do something, we have to be able to do it well. If we can’t do it well, let’s not do it.”

DEAN: Can you name anything that you did differently that gave MoCCA a more solid start? Because you ran it as a business, versus the way an artist would?

That’s a good question. I tried to think outside the box a little bit. You know, bring in more money than I was spending.

DEAN: Yeah, that’s always a good idea.

KLEIN: Exactly. So one of the first ideas, we had Mike Carbonaro, who had given us a table at his Big Apple Con. It was November 2001, and it was right after 9/11. Things had totally changed. One of the members of the board, whom you talked a little about in your article, owned this marketing product company. We created table skirts and banners and MoCCA T-shirts. Now we were just there — just charted for about a month. Because Our charter was for Oct. 15th, 2001, but that got postponed a month. So we were only chartered for a month. I asked some artist that I know: Klaus Janson, Walt Simonson, Jordan Raskin. Different artists to do something they’ve never done before, which was fundraising sketching. I said “I’ve got this idea. Get you guys to the table, do sketches, and all the money from the sketches goes to the museum.”

And they said, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” Nobody had really done something like this before. They did that, and we sold T-shirts. We sold pins, these really cool, shiny pins. We had some that we would give away, and we’d have products. It ended up being the seed money for MoCCA. We ended up making a lot of money that weekend in donations. It was really pretty cool. It was thinking outside the box, and it was how to manage volunteers. One of the problems of these places is that they didn’t know how to manage their staff well. It wasn’t really a staff; it was all volunteers. I’m not saying I was perfect, but I tried to do a good job of getting all these different people to work together and volunteer. And trying to pick good people to do the right things. If you’re a writer, I might ask you to come in and write press releases or other writing stuff as opposed to building walls; you might be a crappy carpenter. But if I’m having you build walls and the carpenter write press releases, I’m wasting your time and not getting a good product. But if I can find somebody who can fit a good niche, put them in that spot and they can be happy in there, then that would be a great thing.

DEAN: Had you talked to Mort Walker or Kevin Eastman about their experience of a comics museum when you were — ?

KLEIN: I did. When I first had the idea, I wrote a letter to Mort Walker. He generously had called me back. That was right after they had their auction and before they officially closed the museum down. So he was much more pessimistic. Very friendly, though. He and Kathy were always very gracious to me. I had no complaints; they would meet with me and they would talk with me. It was really nice. But again, it was about how hard it is. I would say to them, “Let’s work together. Between what I’m doing with MoCCA and the way I can run it. Let’s merge, let’s put stuff together!”

DEAN: I know he was looking for a space more in the northeast part of the country, because he felt like he could get financial backing easier up in the New York or New England area.

Exactly. And I said, “Let’s work together. Let’s bring the organizations together. I’ve got this great organization in New York City, especially after we had been operating a little while. You’ve got a great collection. Between my connections and your connections, we could really make a major museum.” But then again, I wanted to start small and naturally grow it. Don’t do too many things, don’t overreach, and don’t come out too big too fast. Because you’ll probably crash and burn. I wanted to keep MoCCA growing, but grow it at a pace it could grow. So when we got our first space in Union Square, we made sure that the rent was something we could cover. And it was. I remember saying to the board: “If we can’t afford this rent, then we don’t deserve to have the space.” We did really well, and then we were able to negotiate a super-incredible deal with a major New York landlord Jeff Gural for the space we’re in now. And again, I said, “If we can’t make the money to pay for it, then we don’t deserve to have it.”

DEAN: Was that one reason why the merger didn’t happen? Because Mort had this big collection, and you were wanting to start with a small space?

KLEIN: I’m speculating here, but I think yes. We had a small space, and he was accustomed to a castle. Literally, a castle. So I think that was a little bit harder, and sometimes — and I’m not saying this was the case with him — in some businesses founders can get in the way. Founders can’t step away at certain times and founders can’t give up leadership, and it causes a lot of friction and problems. Which is one of the reasons I left MoCCA. I retired from any active leadership, because I didn’t want to be in the way. I didn’t want to cause conflicting information or issues. I didn’t want people to come to me, and then go to Ken [Wong] and say, “Well, Lawrence said this.” I wanted them to make the decisions, and I’d be around to help fill in the blanks.

DEAN: I got your flier about your storefront project, and if you want to talk about that in the course of this, that’s fine. I don’t mind talking about what you’re up to today.

KLEIN: I think what I should talk to you a little bit about is why I left the city. As most people know, my wife’s health wasn’t good, especially after 9/11. We lived downtown and all that junk in the air was really damaging her health. It was getting worse and worse. She had a few surgeries; it was Labor Day weekend of 2005 when we had to take her to the emergency room.

Basically it turned into: “If you want her to live, then you’re going to have to leave the city.” So I made an immediate decision that we’re leaving the city. And within a month and a half, I’d gotten several job offers up in the Berkshires, which is all the way west from Massachusetts. I’m on the border of New York. It’s a beautiful area, and there’s a lot of arts and culture. James Taylor lives here, and there’s some major special-effects houses here. It’s a real arts and culture area; you just never know who you’re going to bump into. So yeah, basically I dropped and gave up my entire life there, and came up here. And at that time, I wasn’t expecting to give up leadership of MoCCA or give up my friends or everything else I was doing. But it was just what I needed to do. I still was chairman, but I turned over most of the day-to-day work to some other people. Ken Wong, specifically. You know, if you look back to the minutes for the annual board meeting for MoCCA (I think it was the 2004 board meeting), I said that by 2007, the end of my second term of Chair and President and all that, I was going to step down anyway, because it was time that somebody in the future should [take over]. I didn’t know that I was going to be leaving the city suddenly. So that was already in the works when I created MoCCA. I wanted to see all the steps down the road: If it succeeded, if it does this, at what point do I get out of the way? That’s what precipitated me stepping down when I did and then not being actively involved. Geographically, I am just too far away. I’ve got a life up here and a job up here. I’ve got two little kids. I got stuff I’m doing—volunteer work I’m doing up here. So that’s how I separated.

DEAN: So there weren’t any particular dissatisfactions you were feeling related to what you were doing at MoCCA, or what you were doing with MoCCA. It’s all related to the atmosphere, literally, post-9/11.

KLEIN: Yeah, it was a totally personal, family decision. Anyone who knew me knew that it was a hard thing for me to do, but it was the thing I knew I had to do. It had nothing to do with MoCCA. I never wanted MoCCA to be about me. You know, you had “Words and Pictures with Kevin Eastman.” You have the Museum of Comic Art, you know, Connecticut. And the when it moved it was Mort Walker’s Museum. I never wanted it to be Lawrence Klein’s Museum. I wanted it to about the collective; what we were doing as a whole. So I felt like at that point, it’s got to go. I’ve got to do what I need to do for me. It’s like a kid. If it continues, then that’s great. I want to see it continue. But at some point it’s got to go on its own and be without me. I had hoped that I had set it up in the right way so it could go on, and clearly I did.

DEAN: And you’ve found a way to keep involved with exhibition work where you are now? I guess, with your involvement in the Storefront Project.

KLEIN: Yeah, absolutely. Storefront Artists Project was founded by Maggie Mailer, Norman Mailer’s daughter. It actually is an interesting story. When GE, as in many cities, closed their plants here, a lot of the stores shut down on the main street. So Maggie went to the landlord and said, “Listen, instead of boarding up your storefronts, why don’t you put artists in there so they can do their art and showcase their art? And then if you have extra space upstairs for living, then they can live there and it keeps the spaces alive.” Pretty much all the landlords said that this was a great idea. North Street was then populated by a lot of art. So it didn’t crash and burn like many other cities. It wasn’t necessarily the best place to be, but you didn’t go down there to all boarded up with lots of graffiti. And late at night, before I got there, you’d hear stories about artists who would pull out their couches into the street to hang out and paint. Stuff like that. Slowly but surely, bigger and fancier organizations and restaurants started to come back, and they put in a $22 million movie theater. So it really did help! There’s a space — they invited me to join them — where what we do is make art accessible. Both ways. To make it accessible for the community, so you can come in for free and see art, but also accessible for the artist, so the artist can display art. Internships, residencies, etcetera. They asked me, probably five years ago, if I would be interested in getting involved in curating these exhibits. I said, “It would have to be family-friendly and free. Whatever we do needs to be free and open to the public.”

They said “Great!”

So I asked Joe Staton, “Joe, you’ve been with me since we started a successful comic convention in high school. Do you want to do this first exhibit with me?”

And Joe said, “Yeah, absolutely. “ We did it, and it was huge! It was really big; we brought in a huge amount of sponsors. People from all over came to it; it was incredible! I’ve been doing it ever since. I did it with Scott Hanna the following year. Last year I did it with Mark Martin, one of your artists. This year I do it with Gary Black. It’s just been tremendous. I love doing this.

Joe Staton created a character for <em>Dick Tracy</em> based on Klein

DEAN: In some ways, these exhibitions are more accessible to the public than the MoCCA space.

KLEIN: In some ways. I can’t address what’s happening now, but when we started and moved into the space we’re currently in, it was inexpensive to get in [to MoCCA]. At the time it was three dollars a person for adults. If someone couldn’t pay, we would invite them in for free. It was never forced upon anybody. That’s what I always wanted, for MoCCA to be accessible. When we started MoCCA Mondays, we were the only museum in New York City that had a free event open to the public on a weekly basis. I mean, just think about that! To me that’s what it was all about. The MoMA didn’t do that, the Guggenheim didn’t do it. No other museum, not counting displaying non-profits, did something like that with major, well-known artists. To me, that was an amazing thing. Going back to accessibility, one of my favorite stories about MoCCA and what I strived to do with it (and what it did): I was working at the front desk one day, in 2003 or 2004. I don’t remember the exact date. Anyways, this group of young ladies and young kids come in (some of the kids are pretty young). They told me that they were from a battered-women’s shelter. I think it was the South Bronx or Harlem or something like that. So if someone’s coming from a battered-women’s shelter from those parts of town, you know that they’ve had a lot of problems. And they weren’t having the best time. I said, “It’s $3 a person for adults, but you guys can come in for free.” But they said, “No, we want to pay.” They felt empowered to pay. So I said no problem. In the hour and a half, two hours, they were there, my interactions talking to them about the exhibits — with the kids, you could see their body language change. You could see their facial expressions change. You could see that they were feeling comfortable, that they were feeling free, that they were feeling safe. They were seeing hope. Things that obviously haven’t been with them for some time. It was just an incredible experience to be a part of that. When they left, I asked if I could give them each a free T-shirt. They were like, “Yeah!” I knew they were going to have a lot of bad days ahead of them. But I hope that one bad day, they can open up that drawer and see that T-shirt, and it brings them back to that moment. And it reminds them that not everybody’s bad, and that there’s a lot of hope and opportunity out there. And that there are good times ahead, too. To me, that’s what MoCCA was all about.