Talking Comics with Tim: Andrew Farago

Back in late January, I completed this email interview with Andrew Farago, curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum. Events on my end delayed it being run until this week. As detailed at the museum's site: "The Cartoon Art Museum is committed to fostering and promoting a greater appreciation of cartoon art.  This it achieves through collecting, cataloging, preserving and displaying the finest representations of original cartoon art as well as providing innovative educational programs designed to enrich the cultural life of our community." While I am pleased to run this interview, before launching into it, I want to offer my condolences to Farago and the museum staff on the February 26 death of Rod Gilchrist, the museum's executive director for the past 11 years. My thanks to Farago for his time.

Tim O'Shea: How long has the Museum had a Cartoonist-in-Residence program--and how did you land the latest person in residence, Mike Gray?

Andrew Farago: The Cartoonist-in-Residence program was started several years back as a joint effort between the Cartoon Art Museum, The Charles M. Schulz Museum and the Northern California chapter of the National Cartoonists Society. We wanted to take advantage of the fact that we’ve got such a wealth of cartoonists in our area and give the public a regular opportunity to interact with them (and vice versa).

The artists come to us in a variety of ways. Often, someone will contact me, or another staff or board member, about his upcoming book, or a new strip launching in a local publication, or a new piece of animation that they’ve created, and that person wants to work with us to promote it.

We’re able to set aside—on average, at any rate—about one weekend afternoon per month for visiting artists to visit the museum, hang out at our drawing table, and promote their work to our patrons and anyone who happens to stop by the museum that day.

Mike Gray contacted me after I’d sent a general call-out to my local artists’ e-mail list, soliciting artists to draw at the Cartoon Art Museum’s table at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con. He had a fun time, and wrote back to me offering to put in an appearance at the museum to promote an upcoming animated short of his that was scheduled to appear on Nickelodeon in the fall of ’08, and we moved him into our next available slot.

It’s been a pretty fun mix of artists over the years, including syndicated strip cartoonists, free weekly cartoonists, graphic novelists, animators, painters, mini-comics creators, and even the occasional European cartoonist.

O'Shea: How did the The Second Annual Family Fun Day at Pixar Animation Studios go?

Farago: It was a very successful event, thanks to Pixar, our staff and volunteers, and our board of directors.

This was the second year for our “Family Fun Day” event, and the fifth for our “Evening at Pixar Animation Studios” event. The conceit of Family Fun Day is that it’s your first day of work as a Pixar animator, and you’re taking some Pixar University crash-courses to bring you up to speed. Kids from eight to 18 get to take two one-hour classes with professional animators, directors and story department personnel from Pixar on subjects including “how to draw” lessons focusing on popular Pixar characters and basic storytelling (taught by the incredibly talented and generous Ronnie Del Carmen).

The best part about that part of our annual fundraiser is that some of the students get to attend because their parents are treating them to a fun afternoon at a professional animation studio, but the majority of students who attend are kids from local schools whose tuition has been sponsored by generous individuals and Bay Area companies. The Cartoon Art Museum gets some additional funding, Pixar staffers get to do something that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives, and the kids, of course, get to have a really fun day out with their friends and families.

Our evening event is geared toward an older audience. Visitors get to visit Pixar, check out the in-house original art exhibitions featuring concept art and maquettes from Pixar’s most recent film, spend money at Pixar’s employees-only store, and attend an exclusive presentation by Pixar artists, story crew, directors, and animators in their state-of-the-art private movie theater.

We’ve had Andrew Stanton, Ralph Eggleston, Sharon Callahan, Mark Andrews, Angus MacLane and Jeremy Lasky, among others, giving special presentations on their own areas of expertise, and for the past two years, we’ve gotten sneak previews of the latest Pixar shorts a month or two before the general public has gotten to see them. The presentation is followed by a silent auction of limited and rare Pixar collectibles, prints and artwork, plus an opportunity for visitors to talk shop with the artists.

All of this goes back to a handful of people, and we’re really lucky to have them all on our side. Michael B. Johnson is a longtime Pixar staffer (his official title is Moving Pictures Group Lead at Pixar Animation Studios, and he’s got a doctorate in computer science from M.I.T.) and he’s been on the Cartoon Art Museum’s board of directors for the better part of the past decade. He developed the fundraiser idea with CAM’s Executive Director, Rod Gilchrist, and, most importantly, Michael was able to convince Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull, to grant us permission to hold our fundraiser at their Emeryville studios. It’s been one of our most popular and most successful fundraising events, and we’re really fortunate to have this relationship with a major animation studio (that happens to be just across the Bay from us).

O'Shea: How did the museum get involved in The Totoro Forest Project Exhibition--and do you think in addition to being of charitable benefit (never a bad thing) that it will bring greater name exposure to the museum to a number of people who may be concerned about the forest but otherwise would have no reason to know of the museum?

Farago: Pixar’s to thank for that one, too. In late 2007, we hosted an opening reception for The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, featuring artwork by the late, great Disney concept artist. The exhibition went over really well, and among the attendees at the reception were several Pixar artists, including director Pete Docter (a big Mary Blair fan, who actually loaned some of the artwork that we included in the exhibition) and artists Dice Tsutsumi, Enrico Casarosa and Ronnie Del Carmen.

The aforementioned Michael B. Johnson grabbed me at the reception and introduced me to Dice, Enrico and Ronnie, who told me about their concept for a fundraiser for the The Totoro No Furusato National Fund. The fund is a non-profit organization that supports Japan’s Sayama Forest, located near Tokyo, and that forest served as Hayao Miyazaki’s inspiration for his classic film My Neighbor Totoro.

They planned to contact nearly 200 of their animator and illustrator friends to commission original artwork inspired by Totoro, which would be auctioned off to raise money to buy a portion of the Sayama Forest, to protect it from developers. Following the auction, the Cartoon Art Museum would display all of the artwork for several months, which would help to keep the fund in the spotlight, and would also allow thousands of additional people to enjoy the artwork before it went into the hands of private collectors.

The Mary Blair exhibition was really great for us, since it allowed us to forge new connections with Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, and raised our profile as a venue for original animation art, as well. We’ve got an original Miyazaki watercolor hanging in the museum right now, the 200 artists in the exhibition and the collectors who bought their artwork are aware of us now, and I’m working with Studio Ghibli to bring a Mary Blair exhibition to Tokyo in the summer of 2009, so sometimes things just work out great for everyone.

O'Shea: When did work begin on the Gene Colan tribute exhibition, which opened in mid-November (and ends on March 15)? Can you discuss some of the folks contributing pieces to the tribute, and has Colan himself been able to attend the exhibition?

Farago: Gene fell ill in the spring of 2008, and within a few weeks of the announcement of his illness, Glen David Gold (author of Carter Beats the Devil and many comics-related essays) called up our director and pitched a comprehensive Colan retrospective. Our director put Glen in touch with me, and I was 100% behind the idea. I’d worked with Gene and his wife Adrienne on several Cartoon Art Museum exhibitions over the past six years, and had met them at several conventions (and I’d even gotten to interview Gene at WonderCon the previous year), and Glen and I both wanted to put together the best exhibition possible as a tribute to Gene and his career. Our next available opening at that point was in November, so I penciled it in and we set to work.

In addition to being a great writer, Glen’s also got great taste in original comic book art, and has an amazing collection of Colan art. More importantly, though, he’s been part of the collecting scene for a while, and he knew where to find all of the best stuff, and how to talk people into letting us borrow it. We’ve got two pages from the only EC Comics story that Gene ever illustrated; one published and one unpublished Daredevil cover; the covers of Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1, Iron Man #1 and Captain Marvel #1; the final three pages of the final issue of Tomb of Dracula; pages and covers from Howard the Duck, Doctor Strange and Detective Comics; plus some jaw-dropping “pencils-only” pages from the late 1990s onward, including an Escapist story that Glen David Gold wrote for Dark Horse and some recent commissioned pieces... It’s the most thorough solo exhibition that we’ve mounted for a single comic book artist.

We were very fortunate that Gene’s health was good enough for him to attend an opening reception that we hosted at the museum in early December. Lee Hester of Lee’s Comics and several exhibition lenders chipped in and helped pay for Gene and Adrienne to visit San Francisco for a week, and the reception was one of the highlights of my curatorial career.

First of all, we had a great turnout, and the audience was full of artists, art collectors, friends and fans of Gene’s. We managed a standing-room only audience for an artist who’s kept a fairly low profile for the past decade or so, and the whole audience was thrilled to spend an evening with Gene and Adrienne.

I got to serve as emcee, assisting Glen, who was battling laryngitis that evening. We had live testimonials from inkers Joe Rubinstein and Steve Leialoha, writer Steve Englehart, and former student-turned-professor (and comic book creator) Daniel Cooney; written testimonials from Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson and Diana Schutz, Eclipse’s Dean Mullaney, and DC’s Paul Levitz. We followed that up with Glen interviewing Gene, allowing him to share some great stories about his life and career, allowing us to hear some great stories about Gene’s formative years. After all of that, and this is one of many, many reasons that I’ll never say an unkind word about the guy, Stan Lee recorded a video testimonial that Gene—and the audience—absolutely loved.

After the testimonials, the founder of the Cartoon Art Museum, Malcolm Whyte, gave a brief speech, then presented Gene with the museum’s lifetime achievement award, The Sparky. The award is named after Charles Schulz, and is given in conjunction with the Schulz Museum to artists who embody the talent, innovation and humanity of Schulz. Only about a half-dozen of us knew in advance that Gene would be receiving the award, and he and Adrienne (and the audience) were completely floored. Heck, Glen and I knew it was coming, and we were floored.

Gene hung around for a full two hours after the presentation to sign autographs, meet with fans, and just enjoy the evening. He and Adrienne pulled me aside at some point and Gene told me that it was one of the greatest nights of his life, and moments like that make me feel like I’ve got one of the greatest jobs in the world.

O'Shea: How long have you been the curator of the museum and what attracted you to the position?

Farago: I moved to San Francisco in January 2000, and by the summer of that year, I was working as a temp and was increasingly unsure that there was a place for me on the west coast. In a last-ditch effort to justify living in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., I decided that I’d try throwing myself into some volunteer work.

In one of those supremely lucky moments, I was at one of my not-fun-at-all temp jobs and checked out Craig’s List for volunteer opportunities. A listing for the Cartoon Art Museum caught my eye, and I interviewed with them the following weekend. I was interviewed by Hallie Brignall, the museum’s bookstore manager at the time, and she gave me a guided tour of the museum. There was a Peanuts 50th anniversary exhibition on display at the time, and seeing all of that Charles Schulz art at once was a revelation. I spent every weekend at CAM, and by the time the museum closed temporarily in the spring of 2001, I’d proven that I was really dedicated to the cause, and that I knew a fair amount about comic art, too.

(As an aside, I should mention that on my very first visit to the museum, at the end of my tour, Hallie took me into the administrative offices and introduced CAM’s current intern by saying, “This is Shaenon. She’s single.” I later found out that there had been some conversation about dating woes before I’d arrived, which explains that unusual introduction, but nonetheless, I ended up marrying Shaenon three-and-a-half years later.)

The museum was closed from early spring until late fall 2001, a victim of the dot-com boom. The landlord, noticing that random Internet startups were springing up left and right and raking in lots of money for not doing much of anything, decided to triple the museum’s rent. As a just-scraping-by non-profit, the only option was to close temporarily and hope that we could eventually find a better location and a more sympathetic landlord.

While the Cartoon Art Museum was closed, I spent a few months working at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum, which, coupled with my art major background and my prior training at CAM, gave me the experience that I needed to get hired on as the museum’s Gallery Manager when we reopened in our current location in December 2001.

As Gallery Manager, my main duties were to install new exhibitions, keep the museum in decent shape for visitors and do some liaison work with the local artist community. Early on, though, I was helping with exhibitions. In the spring of 2002, I co-curated a large-scale Spider-Man exhibition, and I worked as a curatorial assistant on several other shows over the next few years. In 2003, I introduced an area called the Small Press Spotlight, a portion of the museum dedicated to highlighting works from self-publishers and people who weren’t working for the larger publishing houses.

When our staff curator, Jenny Robb, left San Francisco to pursue a career with the Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library, in the summer of 2004, I’d already curated a few large-scale exhibitions by myself, our director, Rod Gilchrist, asked if I’d mind filling in for Jenny, and I’ve been doing the job ever since.

I’ve been really fortunate to learn from some of the best people in the business at this job, which has made things a lot easier for me. Jenny initially studied under Lucy Caswell, head of the OSU Cartoon Research Library, and she was a great teacher. Rod had a really extensive gallery and non-profit background before he came to the museum, and because of his training, I’m one of the fastest matters, framers and hangers of cartoon art in the business. The museum’s founder, Malcolm Whyte, always makes time to talk shop and tell stories about classic comic books, comic strips, or spending time with the underground artists back in the 1960s. And our Assistant Director, Summerlea Kashar, is one of the unsung heroes of the museum, handling all of the financial aspects of CAM that keep us afloat and allow me to focus on things other than balancing the checkbook.

O'Shea: Part of the museum's mission or aim is "dedicated to the collection, preservation, study and exhibition of original cartoon art in all forms to benefit historians, cartoonists, journalists, artists, collectors and the general public.” What pieces stick out in your mind in terms of that you're glad to have preserved that piece of art?

Farago: Our permanent collection has a lot of really interesting pieces in it. We’ve never had an acquisitions budget, so everything that comes to us has been a donation from an artist or collector who believes in the cause and wants to see the appreciation and acceptance of cartoon art to continue to grow.

One of the highlights of the museum’s collection is 20-something original Peanuts strips, all donated by Charles Schulz in the 1980s and 1990s. He and his wife Jeannie were two of the earliest and most dedicated supporters of the museum, and Jeannie is still active in our fundraising efforts and programming to this day.

We’ve got William Hogarth prints dating back to the mid-1700s; several Krazy Kat Sundays by George Herriman, including one donated by Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame; a Thimble Theatre Sunday by E.C. Segar, including an alternate panel that was never published in newspapers; a pretty impressive array of animation artwork, including pieces by Eyvind Earle, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston; a Calvin and Hobbes sketch created exclusively by Bill Watterson for the Cartoon Art Museum’s collectors’ print series; and about 6,000 additional pieces from the 1700s to present.

One of my favorite pieces, in addition to the ones I just mentioned, isn’t especially remarkable, but it dates back to my “Golden Age” as a comics reader. It’s the Sal Buscema-illustrated cover from Avengers Annual #17, with a giant-sized, smiling High Evolutionary holding a globe that has the overpowered fill-in Avengers dangling from it helplessly. I read that comic over and over again that summer, when I was 12, and it’s pretty cool to be the caretaker of all of these pieces of cartoon history, and all of these pieces of other people’s childhoods.

O'Shea: Typically how many people visit the museum in a week or month, and what would you consider to be the most successful exhibit to date?

Farago: Attendance varies from season to season. We just had one of our big attendance spikes, which always occurs right around Christmas, when families are stuck with each other for two weeks straight (or up to six weeks, when you’re talking about families with college students), and they need to find a nice out-of-the-house activity that’s going to keep everyone occupied for an afternoon. We get a similar boost in the summer, generally for the same reason. I think that our attendance averages out to several hundred visitors a week, with our biggest turnouts happening on the weekends and at our opening receptions and other events.

Our most successful exhibition came pretty early in my tenure at the museum, and it featured Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strips from 1985-1995. That was in conjunction with the Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library, since they’ve got 95-99% of the world’s Calvin and Hobbes strips in their archives.

The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, The Totoro Forest Project, and Web-Slinging and Wall-Crawling: The Art of Spider-Man are probably the three most popular shows that I’ve had a hand in, but we’ve got a couple of movie tie-ins in the works for early 2009 (one is Coraline, the other should be announced very soon, if all goes well [sidenote from Tim: I'm unsure what Farago was referencing here, but the museum currently has a Watchmen exhibit running through mid-July) that might top those in terms of visitors and publicity. I’m pretty excited about our upcoming Stan Sakai/25 Years of Usagi Yojimbo retrospective that’s coming up, too.

O'Shea: Several years ago you co-edited a benefit book for the museum, Spark Generators II. Would you ever consider doing something like that again?

Farago: Definitely. I’ve literally got hundreds more artists in my address book now than I did when Jon “Bean” Hastings and I worked on Spark Generators, and I’m sure I could put together a really interesting lineup if we ever take a crack at Spark Generators III. My wife (Shaenon K. Garrity) and I are members of the National Cartoonists Society now, for one thing, so I’d probably target a lot more strip cartoonists, plus I’ve met a lot more comic book artists, animators, and web-cartoonists, both in the real world and through any number of social networking sites.

Actually, I’ve got an anthology project that I was hoping to get started on last year, but my increased workload at the museum prevented me from getting a jump on it, so I’ll go ahead and announce it here and encourage anyone who’s interested (and who’s read this far into the interview) to drop me a line.

My anthology idea is a comic-book tribute to Rory Root, who was one of the greatest friends/supporters/evangelists that the comics industry’s ever had. He was the proprietor of Comic Relief in Berkeley, and dozens, maybe hundreds, of California-based comic creators made their first sales through his shop. I’m hoping to get people to contribute some comics that talk about their personal experiences with Rory and Comic Relief, and to donate proceeds from whatever we manage to publish to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Cartoon Art Museum. Rory’s family liked the idea, and the project’s tentatively titled “Rory Stories.” I may try to get the ball rolling on that sometime in the spring.

O'Shea: I was intrigued to read at the museum website that folks could buy exclusive prints that are available at the museum or through phone orders. What kind of prints can people buy?

Farago: We’ve got a series of collectors’ prints featuring artwork done for the museum by some really great cartoonists, including Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, Patrick McDonnell, Gahan Wilson, Chuck Jones, and the aforementioned Bill Watterson. Our Calvin and Hobbes print, by the way, is one of the only pieces of official C&H merchandise that exists apart from the books. I’m still amazed that our board of directors pulled that one off.

We’ve also got some really nice, high-quality, full color giclee prints that we’re selling right now featuring Mary Blair’s artwork. There are a few more things that we’ve got in the works, too. Our bookstore was managed by an independent contractor through the end of 2008, but now it’s run by the museum, and it’s becoming a very cool little shop for cartoon and comic fans.

O'Shea: In what ways can people donate or otherwise support the museum (other than visiting)?

Farago: Let’s see if I can get something close to a complete list here...

We’ve got a “Causes” page on Facebook, and people can donate money online through that. We’ve also got a PayPal/Donate button on our website. That page also goes into greater detail on some of the things I’ll talk about next). Becoming a Cartoon Art Museum member (or signing a friend up for a membership) is another great way to show financial support, and you get free admission to the museum for a full year in exchange for your hard-earned money.

Artists are encouraged to donate original artwork to CAM’s permanent collection or to be auctioned off at our various fundraising events, and they can also contribute their time in the form of personal appearances, booksignings, or teaching and mentoring up-and-coming cartoonists and students.

We’ve got a very small full-time staff, so we’re always in need of volunteers and interns to help with events, administrative and curatorial projects, education and other programs.

And we can also use in-kind donations of things ranging from food and drink for events, computers and office equipment, printing...if you’ve got resources, we can probably find a way to use them.

O'Shea: Where would you like to see the museum grow or improve its outreach/ability to inform in the next three to five years?

Farago: We’ve made some amazing strides within the past three years, and if Obama manages to keep America in one piece during his first term, we’ve got some really ambitious goals that I’m sure we can reach. Within the past seven months, we’ve hired a full-time Education Director, Diane Shapiro Sommerfield, and a full-time Bookstore Manager, Heather Plunkett, and we’re expecting a lot of growth in those aspects of the museum over the next several years.

The education department used to consist of me and one of our volunteers, Brian Kolm, teaching Saturday afternoon classes a couple of times a month. Brian’s still teaching classes for us, but we’ve now got about a dozen different ongoing programs at the museum and at schools throughout the Bay Area, and there’s room for things to expand outward even more. Sadly, the arts are one of the first things on the chopping block at most schools, and many kids who’ll grow up to be great artists some day aren’t getting any formal training at their schools. Programs like ours offer a cost-effective way to make at least some degree of artistic expression available to students in districts that don’t necessarily have the funding for a full-time art teacher.

Our bookstore is coming along very nicely, and is a great venue for artists to sell their books, pick up new and out-of-print books, and enjoy the experience of buying books out of an actual brick-and-mortar shop. Bookstores are really, really hurting right now, and it seems like I hear about another decades-old bookstore going out of business every month. I encourage people to support their local bookstores whenever they can, since I’m worried that six months from now the only places to get books at all will be libraries and Amazon.com.

In a perfect world, some eccentric billionaire comics fan will read this interview, cut us a very large check, and I’ll have a whole building with several floors’ worth of exhibitions to plan and oversee. I’d like to think that we’re working toward that anyway, but a massive federal bailout of non-profit art museums would go a long way toward making that a reality.

O'Shea: Is there anything you'd like to let folks know about the museum that I neglected to ask you about?

Farago: Let’s see...I think we hit most of the highlights. The Cartoon Art Museum’s a great resource for artists, cartoon fans, art connoisseurs, families and just about everyone else; and we’re doing lots of great work with artists and the community, but we could use better funding. Those are the main two points I wanted to get across.

The one thing that I’m not sure that I got across was how much of a workload I’ve got at any one time. As of right now, for example, I’ve got four major exhibition changes happening at the museum within the next three weeks, I’m dealing with four off-site exhibitions (two directly for the museum, two indirectly), I’ve got two animation articles that I need to write by Tuesday, and two other freelance projects I’m trying to get started up within the next month or so. No matter what problems come up at work on any given day, boredom isn’t one of them.

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