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ToonSeum To Close Its Downtown Venue As Leadership Looks To The Future

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
ToonSeum board president Marcel Walker

There aren’t many museums of cartoon art in the U.S. The handful of examples include Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, which was launched in a hallway in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh in 2007, and two years later expanded into a storefront on Liberty Avenue downtown.

Its smartly curated exhibits have explored everything from daily newspaper strips and superhero comics to the work of local comics star Ed Piskor, of Hip Hop Family Tree fame.

But come Saturday, Pittsburgh too will lack a museum devoted to the art of comics, at least in brick-and-mortar form. The ToonSeum last week announced that instead of renewing its lease Downtown, it’s going to take a year to refocus its energies, while searching for a new building to call home.

Fans can say so long to the ToonSeum's Liberty Avenue space starting at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, during the closing party for Wonder Woman: Visions, an exhibit celebrating the comics icon with work by local artists as well as original artwork from the DC Comics series.

Marcel Walker, the comics artist who is the ToonSeum’s new board president, said the board wants to expand its audience and pursue comics as an educational medium, all while fundraising and increasing its own membership. Walker said the ToonSeum, which relies heavily on volunteers, needs to engage more with the community.

“We’re gonna look at who we can serve better. Just to be very candid, I want to see more black people coming to the ToonSeum,” said Walker in an interview this week in his home studio in Lawrenceville. “I want to see more people of color overall, I want to see more women coming. And I think we can definitely increase … those audiences.”

Walker emphasized that while the ToonSeum will not have a permanent physical exhibition space, the organization is not shutting down.

“The ToonSeum is not a building with a mission. It’s a mission that can be wherever it needs to be,” he said. “The ToonSeum will be here. We are here to safeguard that the ToonSeum will be alive and well. “

By “we,” Walker chiefly meant the museum’s board, which currently includes himself; University of Pittsburgh professor Yona Harvey, best known as co-author of Black Panther spin-off comics “World of Wakanda” and “Black Panther and the Crew” for Marvel Comics; freelance writer and editor Deesha Philyaw; and Brenna Painter, who works in guest services for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Walker noted that while the board will be recruiting additional members, three of the four current members are women, and three are African-American, reflective of a strong commitment to diversity.

The ToonSeum was founded by local cartoonist Joe Wos, who later served as executive director. Wos left in 2014. In 2016, the ToonSeum hired comics historian John F. Kelly to fill the post, but Kelly departed late last year. Walker said the board is also looking to hire a new executive director.

During the year following the closure of its venue, which the ToonSeum is calling a “curtains-drawn” period, the museum will continue to hold pop-up exhibitions and events, often in partnership with other groups.

One notable event is May 7’s conversation, at City of Asylum, with comic-book author and blogger Evan Narcisse, whose credits include “Rise of the Black Panther.” The ToonSeum’s annual fundraiser, Ka-Blam!, is also planned for spring, though a date is not yet set.