Interview with the Society of Illustrators and Visit to the Museum of Illustration
Hello everyone, today I’m pleased to present my October 2017 interview and visit to the Society of Illustrators in New York City! I’d like to warmly thank Ms Anelle Miller, Executive Director and Mr Richard J. Berenson, Advisory Committee Chairman and Permanent Collection Co-Chairman for taking time to give these interviews and show me around the Museum of Illustration.
Audio Interview with Anelle Miller and Richard Berenson
Written Interview and Pictures of the Society/Museum
What are the Society’s mission and activities?
The Society of Illustrators/Museum of Illustration, which promotes the art and appreciation of illustration and its history and evolving nature through exhibitions and educational programs, is America’s longest standing nonprofit dedicated to the field. With a roster of members that includes luminaries in fashion, film, advertising, publishing, and new media, a collection of more than 3,000 works by masters in the field, and a robust schedule of exhibitions as well as educational and public outreach programs, SI/MI is poised to embrace a future that includes educating new generations in the art of storytelling.
The Society offers year-round rotating exhibitions in all three galleries. In addition we host three important illustration competitions which include the Illustration Annual, The Original Art: Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration and the Student Scholarship Competition for undergraduate college illustration and animation majors. We host Drawing Academies for at-risk youth, High School Portfolio Workshops, sketch nights twice a week, lectures, film screenings and arts programming all year round.
What works are in the Society's Permanent Collection?
The Permanent Collection is now comprised of approximately 3,500 works primarily created for reproduction in magazines and books. Since its unofficial establishment in the mid-1930s, the holdings have included many examples by noted comic and cartoon illustrators: Thomas Starling Sullivant, Charles Dana Gibson, Orson Byron Lowell, Otto Soglow’s “The Little King”, Denys Whortman, Frederick Burr Opper, Fontaine Fox, Thomas Nast, Roy Crane, Alex Raymond, Bill Gallo’s and Willard Mullin’s sports cartoons, George Baker’s “Sad Sack”, Bernard Thompson’s “Hop-A-Long Cassidy”, Arthur Burdett Frost, Charles Addams, James Thurber, Jack Davis, Brian Walker, Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey”, Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner”, Al Smith’s “Mutt and Jeff”, Dale Messick’s “Brenda Starr”, Peter C. Vey, Liza Donnelly, Michael Maslin, Sal Buscema, Leonard Starr’s “Annie” and “Mary Perkins, On Stage”, Burne Hogarth, Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead”, Larry Lieber’s “Spider-Man”, Geoff Isherwood’s “Conan the King”, Whitney Darrow, Jr., Arnold Roth, Steve Brodner, George Herriman, José Pepe Gonzalez’s “Vampirella”, Reed Crandell, John Severin, Marie Severin, Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon”, Edward Kemble, Ken Bald’s “Dr. Kildare” and “Dark Shadows”, Cliff Sterrett, Rose Cecil O’Neill, Raeburn Van Buren’s “Abbie and Slatz”, Rube Goldberg, Barbara Shermund, Alex Raymond’s “Rip Kirby”, and Roy Crane’s “Buz Sawyer”. We continue to receive comic art donations from collectors and contemporary illustrators such as Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse and recently added a Frank Godwin “Rusty Riley” Sunday strip from 1958.
Can you elaborate on the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) assets/responsibilities being transferred to the Society?
In 2012, the assets of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) were transferred to the Society of Illustrators and included original artworks by Mark Texeira, Alex Blum’s “Chip Collins”, Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For”, Barbara Brandon-Croft’s “Where I’m Coming From”, Barbara Smaller, Bill Plympton, Bill Sienkiewicz, Bob Fingerman’s “Minimum Wage”, Chip Zdarsky’s “Monster Cops”, Craig McCracken’s “Powerpuff Girls”, Dan DeCarlo’s “Betty and Veronica”, Dik Browne’s “Hagar the Horrible”, Elwood H. Smith, Gahan Wilson, Gary Baseman, Jack O’Brien’s “Sad Sack and the Sarge”, Joe Staton’s “Scooby Doo”, Kaz’s “It Was a Dark and Silly Night”, Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates”, Peter Kuper, Raina Telgemeier, Robert Mankoff, Reuben Bolling’s “Tom the Dancing Bug”, Stan Goldberg’s “Archie”, Steve Ellis’ “Silencers”, Vatche Mavlian, Walt Ditzen’s “Fan Fare”, and Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”.
The Society also received a sizeable collection of books about comic and cartoon art that were added to its own significant holdings. The Library is available for research on an appointment basis by contacting Richard Berenson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
What are some of the Society’s past and upcoming comic art-focused exhibitions?
We’ve had shows that feature the works of such luminaries as Harvey Kurtzman who created ‘MAD' and American satire as we know it; Will Eisner whose ‘Spirit' Strip brought cinematic and mature stories to a children’s medium; and Robert Crumb who broke all existing societal barriers with his 1960s satiric underground title, ZAP COMIX. Recently we did V for Vendetta, the Art of David Lloyd, which featured art from the now iconic character’s story that was the basis for the successful film; and we just closed our biggest show ever in terms of attendance, the Art of Spider-Man featuring John Romita, a show which exhibited hundreds of original pages from 1964 until the present to show the evolution of Marvel Comic’s signature character. We are planning an Art of DC Comics starring Batman/Wonder Woman/Superman and the Art of EC Comics for 2018, and we have some other stellar shows planned as well.
What are your views on the artistic and cultural contributions of comic books/art?
Cartoons are a quick, visceral, and immediate form of communication that expresses humor, satire, or political commentary, and have been used for hundreds of years. The Society has long recognized the influence and value of cartoons, and their natural progression to comic strip and comic book art, which are in fact a series of cartoons in succession. While we often see cartoons in media designed for adults, from the New Yorker to the editorial page of the daily newspaper, comic books were originally a form that was targeted to children. This doesn’t mean that these works are unworthy of inspection and study and celebration; works such as Winnie the Pooh were aimed primarily at children yet transcended the genre to speak to all of us. The best traditional comics do the same thing. Working in the confines of the super hero form, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's work on such characters as the Fantastic Four, Thor, and the Avengers, et al., were often breathtakingly dynamic and at times humorous, noble and profound. Other comics and creators broke free from the super hero form and created stories that were specifically crafted for adults; Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize winning holocaust biography MAUS comes to mind. Comics are a unique artistic form, consisting of a blend of words and pictures; as early as 1924, Gilbert Seldes included the comic strip in his notable academic work, The Seven Lively Arts.
How is comic art perceived in the wider art world?
There certainly has been an increased acceptance of comic strip and comic art as ‘real’ art, for many reasons. One reason is that pop artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein popularized the use of the comic panel in their art and subsequently in a gallery exhibition and ultimately in sales. Another reason is that the art community began to realize the profound artistic expression, draftsmanship, and beauty in works such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Another is the notion of what is considered (fine) art is organic and changing. In a world where a preserved Shark in a Tank created by Damien Hirst is worth $15 million, who can say that a comic page isn’t also art? Value ought to be mentioned here as well; gone are the days of getting a Jack Kirby large 1964 page of art for $35; these days pages can cost $35,000 to $350,000. At these prices, galleries and museums and other parties are taking notice. Comics have arrived.
Will the comic book/art market continue into the Millennial generation and beyond?
For the generations that grew up on comic book super heroes, this art is the source material for the films that they see today and enjoy. Notably, this generation reads less than previous generations did. Tarzan, Conan, and other popular character book series in the adventure genre have been replaced by the super hero genre. Comics are the favored mythology of our times, including for Millennials. A comic page from Avengers #2 for example is like holding the Dead Sea Scrolls, in that it is the original hand-made source material to the Marvel film universe. Disney’s purchase of Marvel Comics assures us that the Hulk will be known in the 22nd century and beyond. Spider-Man is as well-known as Mickey Mouse. That’s not going to change. Even if comics go 100% digital in the future, physical art will be treasured and appreciated. Interestingly, vinyl records are very collectible at the moment and are at a 20 year high in sales, primarily to a generation that didn’t have a record player in the house. I think Millennials are intuitive and we see many of their generation looking back to appreciate the best things of the past; we see a trend towards hand-crafted professions such as barbering, handmade clothes and goods, micro-breweries, and the making of hand-made objects of all types. Comic art is a hand made good, an often collaborative work created by a writer, penciller, inker and letterer. I think Millennials ‘get it’, and that’s good for the comic art market going forward. As far as value, compared to gallery art such as Warhol, Rothko and Basquiat which often sell for tens of millions of dollars, is a Jack Kirby 1960s cover that sells for a few hundred thousand dollars really that over-priced? On the contrary, I think that it is cheap. In Europe, comic pages have sold for millions of dollars. I think that choice, vintage comic art will only increase in value and aesthetic appreciation.
How can people support the Society, and/or participate in activities?
We have many tiers of membership which help support our exhibitions and educational programming. All arts programming is open to the public. Members do receive discounts.
You can visit the Society of Illustrators/Museum of Illustration Tuesday to Saturday at:
128 East 63rd Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues)
New York, NY 10065