An Interview with MoCCA Founder Lawrence Klein

DEAN: Did you get a pretty strong response, initially, to the free shows?

You mean the free MoCCA Mondays? Yeah, absolutely. Some of them were standing room only, and some of them were just a handful of folks: different ages and generations. It was great! The variety of people that would come was amazing.

DEAN: I seem to remember you got a lot of attention, especially when you first opened. In terms of the Storefront Project, I picture literally just art in the windows of storefronts. So people were on the street, and they could see them. Whereas MoCCA’s now — the exhibition space is kind of hidden away.

KLEIN: It’s economy of scale. To get that kind of space, where we are, it’s costly. So you take what you can get and make the best of it. I remember before — I think it was 2003, 2004 or 2005 — I worked out a deal with NYSee, this touring company. They had these banners that would go up on the street — they’re really popular now, too. For a couple of years there, I had those banners sponsored. So if you walked down Broadway between Houston and Prince, you’d see MoCCA banners on the street signs. For two years we had it there. We had one or two on Houston, and then one for the Puck Building on Lafayette. It was around the art-festival time. It was really cool, people loved it!

DEAN: Do you ever feel frustrated with some decisions being made? Like, “Why is this thing being done that way?” or “Why didn’t they consult me about this?”

KLEIN: I don’t look at it like that, because I don’t want them consulting me! I don’t want to be bothered! [Laughs.] No, I want to give it a chance to grow and be what it is. Sure, there’s a time or two where I’ll say, “Huh, interesting decision. I’m not sure why they did it, but they must have felt that it was the right thing to do.” I haven’t seen anything outrageously crazy that would make me say, “I’ve got to step in and end this, or I’ve got to step in and take over.” But one of the things I tried to do with MoCCA was, in essence, to be a benevolent dictator. Listen to everybody and get everybody involved, but make the final decisions. To do what we did, at the time we did it, you needed focus. A strong focus. There were so many things that everybody wanted to do, but we couldn’t do everything. We wanted focus, and we wanted me to lead based on that focus. And that needed to happen.

DEAN: What would you say that focus was?

KLEIN: To do a limited amount of exhibits really well. To focus on the arts festival. To do the best we can with that. To focus on volunteers! To make sure the volunteers were happy. Remember, I was a volunteer too — I never got paid for any of my time at MoCCA. I never got a dime. I got a free T-shirt, and I got to take people out to lunch occasionally. But I never got paid. Never. So that was four or five years of my life that I was focused on the museum with no salary.

DEAN: I didn’t realize that. I figured you got a director’s salary or something.

Nope, nope. If I was going to pay somebody, it would have been somebody else, like Ken Wong or something, not me. Because again, I didn’t want it to be about me. I did not want anyone to think that I created this for me to have a salary, to have a better art collection, to show off my art collection: any of those kinds of things. It was about what does this organization do for the community and how do we benefit it?

DEAN: Starting small, building gradually … it sounds like you definitely were conceiving it for the long haul. It wasn’t like a project that you were going to try for a while until it collapsed. Did you imagine it going as long as it has? Did you imagine that MoCCA was going to be there in ten years?

I ask myself that a lot, and I think I had always hoped it would continue, but always knew that the reality was that it may not. We never got the big grant. There are some places that got million dollar grants from Hearst or, when Charles Schulz was alive, he was very generous. And they still are. But MoCCA was never the recipient of those kinds of sizable grants. So fundraising was always a challenge. I never knew if one day it would be like, “All right. We’ve run out of all our resources, we’ve done what we can do, and it’s time to close the door.” But I always hoped and I always looked at it to try to set it up long term. Again, build small and grow. Don’t over expand, don’t push your boundaries before you really can do so. But sometimes, you got to take a risk. Again, when we got the space on Union Square, and obviously much bigger in Soho, where we are now, those were risks at the time. It’s kind of an interesting story: To get that space, and to get the $70,000 grant, I had to get Alan Gerson who was the council member at that time of that area. Alan’s a really nice guy, but he was very busy because his district was the Trade Center area. Jeff Gural, who was the CEO and Chairman of Newmark, which has since grown to be an international real estate company. So he owned a huge amount of real estate in New York City. Kip Forbes, Malcolm Forbes’ son, the Vice Chairman of Forbes. I had to get the three of them in the room together. In addition, we had Kaye Sholer, a major law firm, which was pro bono counseling for us, so one of their lawyers had to be there. Ellen Abramowitz was just starting to get involved as a real estate broker and adviser and the cultural czar for Alan Gerson, the council member. Just trying to set that up, to get those three people in a room? I mean, Each one of them wanted to have the meeting in their own office. Kip Forbes’ would have been the coolest, because he’s in an old building and there would have been food. Jeff wanted it in his office, across from Grand Central and whatnot. So trying to get them all in the same place, and then trying to pick out the right date. I finally picked the right date, but the timing wasn’t working. Fortunately the scheduler for Alan Gerson really liked me, and liked what we were doing, and so re-adjusted his schedule. So I got them all in Alan Gerson’s office, we had this meeting and basically got Jeff to say what he was doing with the space; Alan will help commit city council to give us funding just to make that happen. It was really an interesting meeting. Jeff Gural, whose building I was going into, turned to Kip Forbes when I wasn’t around and said, “Do they have the money to do it?”

And Kip said, “I don’t think so, but if anybody is going to be able to do it, Lawrence is going to be able to.” That was the core of what we were doing. We were very methodical. Getting the right people together at the right time and show people why they should support us, and why it’s not going to be a wasted effort. Do you know what I’m saying? There had been some history that we had to overcome as well.

DEAN: Because they could see other museums, other comic museums, not doing so well.

KLEIN: Museums with lots of money. We had no money! I promised my wife and told people that I wasn’t going to put in money. I would pay the initial filing fees and pay for the initial website. But if I was going to do it for free, I wasn’t going to put out money. Plus, I felt like that if I was putting in our money, it would look like “The Lawrence Klein Museum.” I didn’t want it to be that way. I didn’t want it to be about me. I was just the lead member of the group.

DEAN: You were already putting in a large amount of time.

KLEIN: Absolutely.

DEAN: I think that was one advantage you had over some of the other cartoonist’s museums. You knew financial people. You were sort of plugged into the network of financial people as opposed to just a network of cartoonists, which are not necessarily a good source of money.

KLEIN: That’s it. If you want to start an organization, you have to make sure that you have the right people around you. So you get a marketing guy — a guy who creates products to showcase; you get an education person — my wife being a teacher; Ted Rall, being a cartoonist who happened to work in finance. It’s those kind of things. And then the people you didn’t see behind the scenes: the accountants, who are still with us, who are pro bono; the attorneys from major firms that were working with us. It was all having those people around me who could help. Help us see things and give us creditability, but also give good advice! To make sure they can understand the rationale of the things I’m saying, even though they come out of left field.

DEAN: Well, is it fair to say that the focus to begin with was on the museum? And that over time it has expanded to —

KLEIN: I would say that I always wanted the museum to have a bigger education program. What Danny Fingeroth is doing now is incredible. That’s what I wanted early on. But it took until now to get that happening.

DEAN: But that was always in the works. That was always something you envisioned.

I always wanted to have a strong education component. And we did in our own way. It was quiet, but we had lots of schools come in. We had people come in and talk to the kids; Alex Simmons, Raina Telgemeier, and Dave Roman early on. We had a program with Nina Paley. So it was really awesome programing that we were doing — that people didn’t really know about.

DEAN: To the extent that they have taken off — the festival and the educational programs — do they end up bringing more attention back to the museum?

Sure. But when I started MoCCA, the intention was to have more than just cool art on the walls. That was never my intention. It’s more about, “What can I do with this cool art? What kind of programming? What can you teach people?” You can use these political cartoons about Boss Tweed to teach about history that people may not know. You have the Democrats and the Republicans; their symbols, the Elephant and the Donkey, came from political cartoons. Warner Brothers cartoons from WWII, which were racist. But why were they racist? Why was that acceptable then, and why isn’t it acceptable now? And what was it saying at the time? So using those as teaching tools. Of course, having cool comic art up on the walls is a really neat thing, but that was just to give it a home. A base. But those other things were really what was important to me. Bringing kids in to talk to them about what was going on. Motivating them. Giving them hope that they can then meet this Batman artist. And that they can actually do that, too.

DEAN: The fact that you needed corporate support — was that problematic in terms of the content of the exhibitions and the type of education you provided? Did you have to try and avoid controversy that might offend corporate sponsors?

KLEIN: No. To be honest with you, no. Most people would tell you that I don’t let anybody come up to me and dictate how MoCCA should be run and how we should have exhibits. About how we should put something together. A good example is Ted Rall. You wrote in your article — you said that I was crazy for doing that.

DEAN: You can’t get much more controversial than that, right?

KLEIN: Exactly. There are practical considerations. When I was there it was less so, but there wasn’t a lot of space to segment off areas. The way we had it set up when I was there, it was different. So to have an exhibit with pornographic comics? It wasn’t practical, because we still wanted to be open for all different ages and people. It wasn’t meant to have art that appealed to only little kids; it was adults, too. But I couldn’t, in a practical way, have that exhibit up. Not because I was offended by it or that I didn’t want to show it or tell the stories. It’s because we couldn’t show it properly! There was no way to do it well.
And I even talked to the Museum of Sex about doing a joint exhibit. But that never panned out. I thought we could do something there.

DEAN: So you’d use their space, and supply some of the art?

KLEIN: Exactly. Do a joint venture there, and allow us to do something we couldn’t do in our space, because of the physical space. If we had a room we could block off with a door that said “Adults only,” and had the proper supervision, then we could probably do that. But no, I never backed away. I always wanted to do good exhibits. In fact, the Axis exhibit was probably our most controversial. But, we did it, and I thought we did it well.

DEAN: You didn’t consider, maybe turning the museum space over to be a more adult exhibit for a period of time when you would only allow adults in?

No, because then we couldn’t do the MoCCA Mondays — plus, what people don’t know is that we gave the space for free. We let other organizations use the space for free: there was a Star Wars club that we let use it; Friends of Lulu, I think we let them have the meetings there. Sometimes we would ask them to volunteer — like, “If you want to use the space for free, you have to volunteer.” Star Wars Club — we started our relationship with them back in our old space in Union Square. They came en masse and helped us re-paint the space! It was awesome. So I was trying to make it mutually beneficial and allow it to be a community space. At the time, there really weren’t a lot of options for these groups. And it was costly.