Talking Comics with Tim: MoCCA's Karl Erickson

While I did not attend Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) Art Festival 2009, held back on June 6-7, I was struck at the amount of constructive feedback that came out of people's reports after the festival. It goes without saying that almost everyone thought the new venue (the 69th Regiment Armory) needed air conditioning and many folks were understandably dismayed with the logistical challenges and delays that occurred at the festival's start. While reading a great deal of reactions from attendees and exhibitors, I was curious to get a lessons learned perspective from the organizers. Fortunately, Karl Erickson, MoCCA Director, was willing to take my email questions. In his answers, Erickson seemingly made it clear he was open to constructive feedback. While my questions aimed to cover a great deal of various concerns, I welcome folks to chime in with additional thoughts in the comments section. My thanks to Erickson for his time.

Tim O'Shea: The first question has to be--did you explore the possibility of air conditioning this year? Was it deemed just too cost prohibitive? If you're staying at the Armory, do you intend to have air conditioning in 2010?

Karl Erickson: We did explore air conditioning for the Armory, but, yes, it was just too expensive. As far as staying at the Armory we are looking at dates earlier in the spring to help alleviate the heat.

O'Shea: Can you speak to what happened to cause the hour-long delay on Saturday and logistical challenges (like delayed book deliveries, only one trashcan on the show floor [by some reports], names missing from the guide book)--and are you establishing measures to try to minimize these situations next year?

Erickson: The delay was due to a few different factors, the major being a severe miscommunication with the trucking company that was to deliver not only many of our exhibitor’s books, but all of our supplies for the festival, not least being our cash registers and other check-in essentials. Of the problems that we did have, having one trashcan for the entire show floor was not one of them. We definitely had many trashcans.

We are certainly taking steps to contain and minimize the mistakes of this year, the most important of which is getting a much earlier jump in the planning and execution of the Festival. This includes a lengthy review of the 2009 Festival with practical solutions suggested. These include moving the Festival earlier in the spring (as this is not the first year we have had heat problems, AC or no), starting on every aspect of the Festival earlier, and creating a new MoCCA website that will deliver information much more effectively to exhibitors and attendees.

O'Shea: Every show has snags, I know, but I was curious if there were scenarios that you know now how to avoid going forward--what are some of the lessons learned?

Erickson: Certainly, and I think I went over a lot of them above. Of course, one of the main lessons is to be in touch with our exhibitors earlier and more regularly.

O'Shea: Am I correct in thinking the dates have not been announced for next year? With that in mind (and please correct me if I'm wrong) how realistic is it to ask exhibitors to make a commitment and pay a $50 nonrefundable deposit for table reservations without knowing MoCCA's 2010 dates?

Erickson: We are still researching dates for 2010. The Armory isn’t able to commit dates until later in July, the beginning of New York State's fiscal year, so that is part of the delay in announcing dates. Also, as mentioned, we are also researching dates earlier in the spring.

Nearly 50% of our 2009 exhibitors renewed their tables for the 2010 Festival, which is pretty close to par. As far as the $50 non-refundable deposit: if an exhibitor reserved their table at the 2009 Festival and aren’t able to attend once we announce the date, we are happy to completely refund their money within 30 days of the date announcement.

O'Shea: How much of a priority is it to improve promotions/communications for the MoCCA festival overall and gain a stronger web presence?

Erickson: We feel that promotions for the Festival in 2009 were fairly strong: we had active presences on the Onion, Village Voice, and Time Out NY, as well as strong chatter over blogs and other internet sites. With over 4,000 attendees (our most yet!), we are pleased with the number of people coming to the Festival, though we always want more. As mentioned above, we plan on being more in touch with our exhibitors and other stakeholders earlier in the planning stages, especially through our soon to be launched new website.

We also sent out a steady stream of press releases leading up to the festival, and we look forward to partnering with others to strengthen our press relations. Except for a few key personal, this years festival was put on by a new team at MoCCA, starting nearly from scratch, including having to rebuild our press lists.

And yes, we are in the process of re-designing our website into a much more user-friendly experience, which we expect to have up soon.

O'Shea: While there have been a great deal of complaints about the festival and concerns about the MoCCA Art Festival going forward, it was almost always in the context of "there's so much I love about MoCCA, but ...". Did you take solace that while people were making negative comments it was frequently in the context of accompanying praise?

Erickson: Yes, we do take to heart all of the positive comments people have made both publicly and privately, as well as the criticisms. We also realize that people are very vocal about their negative reactions because they care very much for the MoCCA Festival. It should also be said that the quality and variety of comics, books, and other great items on view this year were just great.

O'Shea: Enough about the festival's challenges this year--what were some of the highlights/successes of MoCCA 2009?

Erickson: Well, of course, the brightest highlights are all of the fantastic comics, cartoons and graphic novels! It would take up to much space to list individual favorites and delights! For me, being able to give the Klein Award to Jerry Robinson was pretty special, having Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth on stage was great, comics from Derek Van Gieson, The Moth and the Flame by Joshua Ray Stevens, Sugar Booger, Sara Edward-Corbett, Becky Cloonan, the entire Scandanavian contingent, Hard Comics from Romania, and just everything else was a highlight. Another major positive factor is the dedicated volunteer core that puts the Festival together. The panels were incredible, and very well attended. And the Festival was a successful fundraiser for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.

O'Shea: In terms of exhibitors how many did you have in 2009, compared to years past? And how much growth did the festival experience in terms of international exhibitors?

Erickson: We had over 250 exhibitor tables, with more than 750 individual artists, publishers and creators exhibiting. We had 43 artists and creators from Scandanavia, and Ireland, England, Romania, and Japan were all represented. We keep getting more and more from around the world. It is great and a vital part of our Festival to have the international comics community represented.

O'Shea: What were the biggest benefits gained by moving to the Armory (as compared to years past at the Puck Building)?

Erickson: The biggest benefit to moving to the Armory is having all of the exhibitors in one area, no one was hidden away are stashed around a corner. Plus, we were able to have all of our programming on site, which greatly benefit the excellent talks and lectures MoCCA hosted. We understand how attractive the character of Puck Building is to people, however, it is just not available to us, given their rising fees and space redesign. Plus the Armory has a significant bit of history itself, for those into modern art.

O'Shea: What's on the horizon at the museum this year? I know the Conversation with David Mazzucchelli and Dan Nadel is set for July 16, but are there other events you are busy arranging for in 2009?

Erickson: Immediately upcoming we have the Mazzucchelli/Nadel conversation, we have Molly Crabapple talking about her new book on July 21st. By the time this sees print, we have had an evening with TYPHON and Carousel with Danny Hellman and R. Sikoryak. Upcoming we have shows planned with Archie Comics, romance and love in comics and cartoons, and a whole host of youth workshops. We have on view "Meanwhile... at 594 Broadway: The Art of MoCCA's Volunteers" as well as the Mazzucchelli show.

O'Shea: Any final thoughts you want to share?

Erickson:  MoCCA would like all of our exhibitors, attendees and press to know that we value them very highly and we are working diligently on making the 2010 Festival the best yet.

We would also like to thank all of the volunteers that make MoCCA and the Festival possible. Neither would exist without their dedication and efforts.

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