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Toonseum moving from Children's Museum to Cultural District

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Friday, Aug. 28, 2009

There are three museums dedicated to cartoon art in the United States: New York City, San Francisco and ... Pittsburgh.

The 'Burgh's tiny Toonseum has struggled to find its niche in the past two years, where it has been limited to a small hallway gallery inside the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

"That's the problem," says Joe Wos, Toonseum executive director. "Our demographics are very different (from the Children's Museum). We'd get 40-year-old men asking, 'Are you sure it's OK to come in here?'"

That's about to change. The Toonseum soon will put down roots in the Cultural District. It's moving to the Bruno Building on Liberty Avenue in November.

The move will enable an expansion from its current 200 square feet to about 1,250 square feet, including room for a permanent gallery, films and all kinds of programming.

Best of all, the Toonseum finally will have a space all to itself.

Wos believes that a Downtown location is exactly what it needs to thrive. It will be hard to miss, too. The new Toonseum will be next door to two giant folk-art statues of jazz musicians.

"They're like cartoon characters!" Wos says.

When the Toonseum organizers decided they needed a new space, they approached Cultural District planners -- who initially were skeptical.

"They grilled us to make sure we were grown-up enough -- that we were ready to take this kind of step," Wos says.

Wos was able to make the case for the importance of cartoon art, and that the Toonseum could present it the right way.

"The Cultural Trust often does this kind of facilitation -- finding new organizations and businesses for the Cultural District," says Cultural Trust spokeswoman Veronica Corpuz. "Though they're not actually in one of the Trust's properties.

"The Cultural Trust thought the Toonseum was a good fit, because it would expand the continuum of diverse programming in the Cultural District, and offer an extremely unique opportunity to engage residents and visitors to the District," she says. "In line with trying to elevate the national reputation of Pittsburgh as a destination for art, this was another opportunity."

Cartoons traditionally have had trouble being taken seriously. This is changing, though, mostly because of the rise of literary-quality comics and graphic novels, and the growing respect for animated filmmaking.

"It's arguably the most popular art form in the world," Wos says. "It's the original Pop Art. It's popular with 2-year-olds and 92-year-olds. It's a museum concept whose time has come."

There will be galleries for temporary exhibits, as well as the Toonseum's permanent collection. The first exhibition, "Enchanted Drawings: 100 Years of Animation," will range from original sketches of Gertie the Dinosaur and Steamboat Willie to the Powerpuff Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Another gallery will showcase Pittsburgh's strong cartooning community. Future exhibits will focus on original art from the Japanese anime epic "Akira," the work of Molly Crabapple, original art from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," and "The Dogs of Summer," which features famous cartoon canines such as Snoopy, Krypto and Scooby Doo.

"Cartoons are also a great transition into many other art forms," Wos says. "If you have an appreciation for comic books, it's not hard to get into Lichtenstein, or Warhol."

The new Toonseum will host cartooning workshops for kids and adults, screenings of cartoons, performances, lectures and readings. There also will be a gift shop.

"We know we have to get them in the door first," Wos says. "Snoopy gets them in the door. Then, we get to educate them about the impact cartoons have had on our culture."

Initial funding for the move comes from a grant from the Grable Foundation.

"Gregg Behr (Grable Foundation executive director) understands how pop culture can be a tool to educate children," Wos says.

The Toonseum will pursue additional grants and offer memberships for $30 per year, or $50 for a family. Admission will be $4. The opening is planned for Nov. 7.

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