An Interview with MoCCA Founder Lawrence Klein

DEAN: Well I’d like to talk about an example. That Archie exhibit they had recently, where there was no discussion of the problems between the creators and the corporation. And That’s part of the history of these characters and the creators. But because there apparently was a wish to not raise controversial issues that might offend Archie [Comics.]

KLEIN: Yeah, I can’t answer that because I wasn’t involved. But again, you have to trust curatorial. Like, what’s the story you’re trying to tell? If it’s showcasing the artwork and being able to do programming around that artwork, then maybe that’s not the appropriate place. Maybe it is. We did talk about that sort of thing in other areas and arenas. I remember there was a panel we had done — I think it was at the New York Art Show, at the Lincoln Center. I had gotten us a free booth there for four years running, and they had giving us a couple of panels. And I remember doing one that was controversial, where some people from big comics companies came and said, “You shouldn’t be doing this.” But behind the scenes, the editors were like, “Good for you, I’m glad you’re doing this. We can’t officially support you, but we’re here with you.” So we would do things like that.

But we’d have to close the museum to kids under 18. If it’s just for the sake of being controversial, then I’m not going to deal with it. But if it’s a realistic thing, then I’ll deal with it. And I dealt with every issue brought to us head on. I never shied away from anything. Just read your article — ten years ago, you get that!

DEAN: You mentioned the trust in the curator. Has it always been the case that MoCCA owns the exhibit and all the associated materials? The catalog, etcetera? I’m hearing some cases where curators own those things. And it sounds as though MoCCA has a contract where all the rights go to MoCCA.

KLEIN: I think a lot of those issues, which I don’t want to deal with, came up after I left. But when I was there, because it was an all-volunteer organization, someone would curate an exhibit, and it was MoCCA’s. It was a collaborative effort; it wasn’t just one person. They might be the organizer or the bandleader per se, but it wasn’t theirs because there were so many hands that were a part of it; so many people connected to it. And nobody wanted it to be, at the time, anybody’s specifically. People wanted to get credit as a curator, but they wanted it to be wholly the community’s. But different museums do it different ways. There are museums out there, where the museum does it and it owns it. It’s paying for it and gives space to it, so it owns it. There are some museums out there where, “Who cares who owns it? Let’s just put it together and do a great exhibit.” To me, it was about the community. We never cared about who owned it. We never had that issue. Not that there’s that issue there now or not. I can’t answer that. But when I was there: This is a cool exhibit and it’s a good thing to do and we’re doing it. We should be proud of what we’re doing and accomplishing. If we do it well we can hold our heads up high.

DEAN: One touchy issue of museum ethics: Do you still have all the art donated to the museum?

There’s a technicality there. You have to understand — remember, you’re talking to a corporate lawyer — I wanted to make sure, because there were problems that other museums had, that we did this correctly. I’m going to start a little bit before, and answer a different question you asked me. Once I started MoCCA, and we started doing the exhibits, I realized that we didn’t want a real collection. Because the pieces that we really wanted to exhibit — I remember it was a really incredible [Antoni] Gaudi drawing we had in our New York exhibit; we could never have afforded that. There was no way. We couldn’t afford to buy it, we couldn’t afford to store it and we couldn’t afford to keep it. You think of all the resources it takes to do that for one piece, and what that takes away from. We’re basically a small, volunteer-based, guerilla-warfare kind of museum, raising money as we’re going. So I never thought we should have a collection. I thought, instead of having a collection, let’s have really good exhibits and we can borrow incredible pieces we could have never had in the exhibit. And if we’re not going to be able show them because some of the pieces we can get are not top-notch, then why even do it? Now there were times when pieces were donated. There’s two things — and I’m oversimplifying this — but there’s a donation to the museum to do with it what it wishes and there’s a donation to its collection. And when it’s donated to the museum’s collection, that’s when you have the issues of de-accessioning. So when it’s donated to the museum in general, you can do whatever you want with it. I can put it up, I can use it as toilet paper, I can sell it or I can just keep it. And if I keep it, it doesn’t mean that it’s part of the technical collection; it just means for now I want to keep it. I don’t know if you’re getting at [the “Cartoonists Against the Axis” collection].

DEAN: That’s a major example.

KLEIN: In that case, Hilda [Terry] had come to us, and I think the Arts League or whoever, came to us and said, “I have this collection of art. And the Arts League doesn’t want it and I can’t keep it.” So basically it was going to be destroyed because nobody wanted it. So when we took it on, I specifically said to the board — to the people who were around, who were there, who knew (and there’s documentation of me saying this) — that is we’ll take this collection, but we’re not going to take it as part of our collection; we’re going to hold it as part of the museum. They can donate to the museum, but part of that means we’re going to do whatever we want with it. Because I knew long-term, we couldn’t properly take care of that collection. If we didn’t take it, Hilda couldn’t properly store it. Unfortunately, where it was being kept, it was being destroyed. The Arts League didn’t want it and other places had turned it down. So we said, “All right. Let’s take it. We’ll put up an exhibit — a really nice exhibit with it — and see what happens from there.” But we don’t want to make it a part of the collection, because there’s no way we could properly take care of it, and we may at some point need to sell it or give it away or something. And that was a conscious decision. Hilda knew about it — everybody knew about it — and therefore, that’s what happened. And then, because no one else wanted it and we didn’t have the resources to properly take care of it, we sold it.

DEAN: Whenever you get a donation of art, is there paperwork involved that makes clear if it’s being donated for whatever purposes you want to use it for or if it’s being donated to the collection? Because I would think most people who donate art probably think it’s going to be on the walls of the museum.

KLEIN: I was the one usually doing it, and I would explain to the people that: “Listen. There are two things. It’s for the collection itself or it’s for the museum — in which case, we can do whatever we want.” And most people would say, “Do whatever you need to do with it.” A good example is Bob Sikoryak. He did this version for a Comics Journal cover of a takeoff of Norman Rockwell — of different heads talking to each other. And he gave us that piece and that was for the collection. But there were a lot of other artists who gave us artwork to auction off, raffle off, to do as we wished. And there were some that gave it to the collection. Again, I tried to not take too many pieces, especially super-valuable pieces for the collection, because I didn’t feel we’d be doing it justice at the time.

DEAN: Although, you did say — and I think it’s even in part of what the Museum site says now — that one of your goals is to build a collection.

KLEIN: Well, I don’t run the museum now.

DEAN: But when you started, you had told me that one of your goals was to build a collection.

Yeah, I agree with you. I’m not saying I didn’t say that. Over the experience — hopefully, being a good businessman you learn to zig and zag and learn from what’s going on around you and deal with it that way. And one of the things I learned by doing it was that — you know, at the time we didn’t have the resources to build a big collection and it would be too much of a burden on the organization to do it.

DEAN: So you started out wanting to build a collection, but the experience of running the museum made you realize that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. It was better to deal with art coming and going, rather than trying to have a permanent collection.

KLEIN: Exactly. Or a big one. There were certain pieces that we would use in different cases that were good teaching pieces, interesting historically or something. Something key that would make it valuable for us to keep. But overall, yeah, at the time … And to be honest with you, ignorance is bliss. If I knew what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have started it. But life works in strange ways, and you learn things along the way and you accomplish some incredible things. Like, you know all the things that MoCCA has accomplished in ten years. The fact that we’re talking about it now and it’s still around.

DEAN: Yeah. That’s amazing enough.

When you were writing that article, or all the people that were reading the article at the time, who would have thought we would be here now? And not just virtually, you know? We’re real. And we’re internationally known. I mean, I go around the world and people know about the museum.

DEAN: I sort of even wonder what the point of a virtual museum would be, since the idea is that you display original art …. I’m not sure what it means to scan —

KLEIN: — It’s not even just display, but what is done with it. It wasn’t about just the art on the wall; it was about what you do with it. To me, if it was just that art on the wall, I’d stay at home and look at the art that I have on my wall. But that wasn’t what it was for.

DEAN: What did you mean when you said that if you knew then what you know, you might not have gone forward with it. What kinds of things were you thinking of?

KLEIN: Just all the challenges and effort and time that I put into it. I didn’t know how much of me I would put into it when I was there and some of the challenges we had there and some of those things that I thought I knew that I didn’t know. Like building a big collection: “Build a big collection; that’s the way to a big museum.” No. If you build a big collection and you don’t have a big museum, you’re going to put up too big of a burden on the organization.

DEAN: When you did decide that you’re going to have a small, permanent collection, what kinds of criteria did you use to decide: “OK. This is something we are going keep in our very limited, permanent collection. Or this is something we can’t afford to keep.”

KLEIN: I think it was a piece-by-piece basis. Did it relate to the museum? Did it relate to New York? Was it something historical? It all was determined on what was going on at the time and the piece itself. Who knows? I remember Marshall Rogers, before he died, gave us a Batman page. It was to do whatever we wanted with it. I guess that pops because that’s a good example — then he dies suddenly. And you’ve got this page: Do you keep it in the collection or do you raffle it off, auction it off? What do you do? Because the dynamics of what happened just changed? It’s not an easy question. It’s not an easy answer. The Axis collection is a good example because that took a lot of deliberation. People don’t know how much thought and effort we actually put into making the decision to take it on. Even though we knew it wasn’t going to be part of the collection. We wanted to keep that collection, we wanted to save that art and we wanted to make sure people had a chance to see it. And I think we accomplished all of those things.

DEAN: I suppose that having a continually changing exhibition space means more art gets seen by more people than if you had to devote space to a permanent collection.

KLEIN: Right. Exactly.

DEAN: So what kind of feedback have you gotten about MoCCA over the years?

KLEIN: It ranges. You can’t please everybody. And if you try to please everybody all the time you’re going to please no one. The overriding thing is how much MoCCA made a difference in people’s lives. There are numerous people who met and are partners or married because of it. There are people who found themselves, people who found editors, met people when they normally wouldn’t have. I look at all the people when I walk down the art festival, and they say, “You know, you changed my life. If it wasn’t for MoCCA, I wouldn’t be here or I wouldn’t be doing this or I wouldn’t have met my spouse.” To me, that’s incredible! That takes away all the little criticisms of: “Oh, did Peter Kuper really represent alternative comics in the exhibit or didn’t it?” You can’t please everybody. You do your best. And there are some people who didn’t like my management style, and I say, “So what?” I did something that a lot of people with a lot more resources couldn’t do. And MoCCA has been around 10 years. How many cartoon museums lasted that long?

DEAN: Even though you can’t please everybody, you did say it’s a learning experience, and I guess one of the things you learn from are the complaints. I guess, when you hear complaints that there’s not enough representation of alternative comics, say, that maybe you look at that more closely, you’re a little more aware of that.

KLEIN: Definitely. You learn from that. Again, one of the reasons I think MoCCA grew was because I learned from those experiences. I listened to what everybody said, though I didn’t always agree. And I tried to balance it; it can’t always be balanced. Going back to your article, I knew that the art festival was going to be heavy alternative. And with that first exhibit at the Illustration House, it was tough to really represent every single one because of the space and the time. But I knew the arts festival was coming up; there would be a lot of alternative comics there. And we did different exhibits with different people, and even now, with the last couple of years, they had a World War III exhibit there … some other independent artists. I see Howard Cruse a lot and talk about the stuff we did together, because he lives up near me. You learn. If you don’t learn, then you’re bound to fail. Here’s a good example. I remember I suggested doing this exhibit with an artist named Danny O [Daniel O’Connor] who’d take Scotch tape and put it on old Archie comics, take off the color and do these collages. And 3-M wanted to sponsor him and do an exhibit and do this whole thing for their anniversary. And it was going to be right after the whole Eisner exhibit. I knew his art and I thought it was going to be really cool and neat, and the board said, “Don’t do it. It’s not going to be a good exhibit.”

I said, “You know, I really have faith in this thing. People are going to really love it.”

And then they were like, “Oh, we’ll see.” And it went up and it was a huge hit — people loved it. Sometimes it’s just going with gut and sometimes it’s all of us discussing it, saying this criticism is correct and how do we deal with that.

Sometimes the criticism would be about things that were not very substantial. And those would get blown out of proportion, and the real things that people should be talking about — hopefully we create dialogue. I always liked having that dialogue open, even people who criticize MoCCA or me. My door was always open to hear them out; I’m willing to talk to anybody, because I wanted that dialogue. I felt that dialogue could bridge these gaps and could help me learn about how to do it better. Or, even if I can’t please everybody, to do something that is definitely more pleasing. Or to compensate for an exhibit that someone didn’t like because they’re not into Archie, but they’re into old newspaper strips from the ’50s or something.

DEAN: For the educational programs, with Danny Fingeroth running things, the easiest thing in the world, I guess, would be to focus on the kind of superhero comics published in New York. And you’d probably have a lot of people enrolling for those kinds of workshops. But it does seem like there’s an effort to try to mix it up with alternative artists and people like that: people like Peter Kuper. Was that something you were conscious of?

Yeah. When I was running the museum we tried to do that because of the economy of scale. You need to have the Stan Lee, Todd McFarlane exhibits, if you’re going to do a small exhibit nobody’s really heard of because you need to bring in funding and you need to bring in people. I wanted to make sure there was a good balance of things that [would include] the flashy things that people would see. I thought the Todd McFarlane exhibit was incredible. You walk in, and the first wall was all his artwork as a kid and there’s an early Spawn drawing and letters of rejection from schools. Then the slow progression of his art, and you can see how his art got better and better and more popular and stuff like that. Then you have exhibits that aren’t well known or aren’t as visible, but will get people through the door because they know of these other exhibits. Sponsors who may not know of Peter Kuper but know Spider-Man, and Spider-Man artists will get them to give us some more money so that we can have the alternative, independent, small-press kinds of exhibits. I’m just using comics as an example. Same thing as animation, political cartoons and The New Yorker: the whole gamut.

DEAN: Have the less mainstream kinds of exhibits and educational programs been less of a draw? Have there been some that were surprisingly successful?

I’m trying to think. There had been…. I remember a two-day exhibit for Hellboy, right before the movie came out, that we did with Mike and Christine Mignola. We had just opened MoCCA, pretty much. There was nothing there, and I didn’t know how many people would show because Hellboy wasn’t as popular as it was after the movies came out. And a huge following showed. I think that just stands out because that was the first real exhibit we did at MoCCA, even though it was a like a two-day exhibit. I was surprised at how many people, and the different kind if people came out. There were a lot of different exhibits that we showcased that did really well. There was a “Women in Comics” exhibit. I remember running into people here: a lady who owns a newspaper called The Women’s Times, which is regional paper, who wrote a whole thing on it. I was like, “Wow. That’s pretty cool.” People all over are seeing things. And there are a lot of examples; I just can’t think of all of them at the top of my head.

I’m just excited that all the different people came together to make it what it is today. A lot of people, especially in the five years when I was actively running it: all volunteers. No one got paid. There were a couple people who got a stipend here and there, but that could barely afford rent and food and living in New York City. So it’s amazing to me looking at what this group did.

DEAN: Overall, what kind of experience has it been for you?

It’s a wonderful experience. Now that I have two kids, I compare it almost to being a child. You have this, you birth it, you help it grow and you hope it does a good thing. At some point you’ll have to kick it out of the house and hope it thrives. I did that five years ago, and here we are … still going strong. I think one of the challenges that MoCCA has, and always had is that because of the way it’s run and set up — and it’s very personal to people. It’s a project of the heart, so people take it very personally. If something happens or someone doesn’t like something, they take it very personally. Where if it were just a normal job or something they wouldn’t care as much. Sometimes that works in our favor and sometimes people get really upset because something happened. And it’s that passion that I love about. Either way, I don’t want people upset, but you can’t please everybody. You’re going to be making a decision — for better or for worse — somebody’s not going to be happy with. And when you’re really connected to it on a passionate level — like I said, a really heartfelt level — it’s going to feel not so good.

DEAN: Different people relate to comics in a lot of different ways, and yet there are not a lot of venues like yours to address that large field in all the many ways that you could relate to comics. So, that’s kind of what you’re up against.

KLEIN: Exactly. And it’s that passion. It works for and it works against you. And you’re going to have disagreements, but I always trying to keep, for the most, those disagreements limited and very productive and respectful. I’m not perfect, but I try to do the best that I can do.

DEAN: Are there any regrets about MoCCA: things you wished would have developed differently or something you wanted to do but weren’t able to?

KLEIN: I wish I could have finished out my term running it. I would loved to…. I think of Ken Wong. He was fantastic! MoCCA wouldn’t be what it was without Ken. He’s an amazing guy. I wish I could have spent more time in the city — put aside all the health stuff; just spent a couple more years with him making it stronger. But on the flipside, when I left the city, I got my wife healthy, we got two kids we never thought we could have. I’m happy. There are tradeoffs in life. I don’t look back with regrets. I look at MoCCA and all that we accomplished then and what’s being accomplished now. Again, ten years after we started it, it’s still there! For everything that went into it: good, bad and indifferent (and there was a lot more good than the other two). It’s still around. And again, I go back to how it’s made a difference in so many people’s lives. That, to me, was the core of why I started it: to make a difference. I know it did and I know it has. I hope MoCCA lasts for a long time. I feel I got out of it way more than I put in. And it makes me feel good about that.