After a two-year hiatus, the Cartoon Art Museum has finally settled into its new home, and gadzooks! it’s a great location.
Situated directly in front of Aquatic Park on the north end of Fisherman’s Wharf, its floor-to-ceiling glass exterior offers cartoon enthusiasts stunning views of the Bay while they amble through the museum’s various exhibits.
Since its official founding in 1987, the Cartoon Art Museum has moved four times, but according to founder Malcolm Whyte, the new location at 781 Beach St. — which it officially moved into on Oct. 28 — is the best yet.
“As the longest-established Cartoon Art Museum in the country, and as an integral part of the Bay Area arts community, we will continue to provide enlightenment and amazement to our visitors for generations to come,” he says.
And while the staff is still hanging gems from their permanent collection on the available wall space, they’ve already gussied up the place with a handful of impressive exhibitions emblematic of the new-ish direction they’re headed in terms of programming.
Their featured show, Smile! The Comics of Raina Telgemeier, showcases the work of a San Francisco native cartoonist whose graphic novels Smile!, Sisters, and Drama draw from her experience as an awkward teenager. (They’re geared toward youth audiences, which is unsurprising since she’s also created four graphic novel adaptations of The Babysitter’s Club.)
“We really want to engage young audiences and get them excited about the creative process and telling their own stories,” says Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum. “I’d be thrilled if five or 10 years from now, someone whose work I’m showing in the museum tells me, ‘I saw that Raina Telgemeier exhibition back in 2017, and it really energized me.’ ”
The work of Nidhi Chanani, whose graphic novel Pashmina is geared toward younger audiences as well, appears in the museum’s Emerging Artist Showcase. In this work, a young girl reconciles her dual sense of identity, living as a person of Indian descent in the United States.
However, it’s not like the whole museum is a kid’s party these days. A tribute to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comprises the third exhibit, consisting of dark and twisted interpretations of the eponymous anti-hero by comic book heavy-hitters such as Nick Dagrotta (East of West) and Sam Kieth (Sandman, The Maxx).
The current exhibitions speak to cartoon aficionados of all ages — Talgemeier’s hyper-clean linework and overall expertise in the medium is accessible to adults and children alike — but all told, the opener definitely leans toward a younger audience.
“Ultimately, I want people to be as excited about comics as I am. I want to share my appreciation for this art form,” Farago says. “I chose her very deliberately as our launch show because it symbolizes the direction we want to take.”
The museum’s programming reflects this direction as well. Beginning in December, it will host First Saturday cartooning workshops for kids and teens, and over winter break there will be longer workshops for parents and their kids, as well as for teens and for adults. Similar events will also be held over spring and summer break in 2018.
The new location also includes a cartoon reading room that will eventually house hundreds of titles for people to pull off the shelves and dive into while sitting at several circular tables.
In terms of outreach, the museum is working on a new program for teachers called The Legion of Educators that collects comics resources for them to use in the classroom. Additionally, the museum offers 50-percent discounts to educational groups that book in advance, will schedule private workshops for interested student groups, and will also travel to campuses for onsite presentations.
It’s no secret that cartoons are an often-untapped reservoir of educational opportunity, and Summerlea Kashar, the museum’s executive director, is well aware of just how special the medium is.
“Many people think cartoons are simple. But they are really just the opposite,” Kashar says. “They take complicated concepts and make them accessible and understandable to the average person. They can talk about personal subject matter, political, historical, humorous, or just plain non-sequitur. I think it’s one of the most frequent misconceptions about the art form.”
But again, the new Cartoon Art Museum isn’t just for the teenyboppers out there. They plan to offer seasonal Adult Academy sessions for aspiring artists and will host numerous guest artists and creators for lectures and demonstrations in their “Toon Talks” series.
Furthermore, the 7,000 pieces in the permanent collection will continue to rotate across the white and exposed brick walls of the museum’s interior. Consisting of original works by comic stip pioneers like Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat) as well as countless other important cartoonists, the museum has decades of material that would satisfy The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy himself.
Farago also says to be on the lookout for some cool new features of the museum. For example, they’re playing with the idea of a stop-motion animation station as well as some more interactive exhibits.
The return of the Cartoon Art Museum is a boon for the San Francisco art community. As a multi-decade institution, it’s representative of the type of cultural bone marrow the city needs. Namely, programming that authentically takes both adults and children into account. In a city that seems to be losing touch with its youthful inhabitants, any place that offers enriching opportunities to creatively minded people of all ages is a great thing.
After all, there really is something magical about cartoons.
“It’s just such an appealing, universal art form,” says Farago. “If aliens landed tomorrow and you wanted to communicate with them, I think comics would be the best way to do that.”
Cartoon Art Museum, Thursdays through Tuesdays, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., 781 Beach St., $ 4-$10; 415-227-8666 or cartoonart.com