Out of 'Toon

A muddled mission, an overbuilt home, and the indifference of Boca's blue bloods have brought the International Museum of Cartoon Art to the brink of cancellation

Some of the museum's holdings are modern icons, strips such as "Garfield" and "Peanuts." Others are just vague memories to the Greatest Generation: "Terry and the Pirates" by Roy Crane, "Mutt and Jeff" by Bud Fisher, "Little Nemo in Slumberland" by Winsor McCay, and "Little Jimmy" by Jimmy Swinnerton. The museum's possessions also include the estates of Chester Gould, creator of "Dick Tracy"; Dik Browne, originator of "Hagar the Horrible"; and Alfred Andriola, father of the "Kerry Drake" strip. The collection includes 200 years of political works, including originals by Thomas Nast, a pioneer in American editorial cartooning.

After the museum lost its lease in Greenwich in 1977, the collection was moved to spacier digs in Rye Brook, New York, where the museum's support and attendance grew steadily. The New York metropolitan area has been the historic home of cartoon syndicates and comic book publishers, most notably DC and Marvel, which dominated the trade for more than three decades. Throughout his career Walker had rubbed shoulders with the industry's movers and shakers, and those associations proved a catalyst for donations.

By 1990 space considerations forced the museum's board of trustees to seek a larger venue. Locations were scouted as far south as Washington, D.C., and north to Boston. The museum struck a deal for space next to the Maritime Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, but after a year of wrangling, the city council decided not to allow another not-for-profit in that district.

Will Eisner has spent his career trying to elevate the standing of cartoon art in America
Will Eisner has spent his career trying to elevate the standing of cartoon art in America
As head of a fundraising drive for the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Henry Deppe found a way into the hearts and pocketbooks of wealthy Boca Ratonians. The cartoon museum has not been as successful.
As head of a fundraising drive for the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Henry Deppe found a way into the hearts and pocketbooks of wealthy Boca Ratonians. The cartoon museum has not been as successful.

Soon after that deal died, New York City- based publicist Ted Levine sent a fax to Will Ray, president of the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, enticing him with the idea of making the county the museum's next home. The request struck the right chord with the council, the mission of which is in part to promote general culture. Ray wrote a letter to Walker expressing interest. He heard nothing for a year, then Walker suddenly telephoned and proposed meeting during the National Cartoonists Society conference in Miami in 1991. "I fell in love with the Walkers," Ray says of the meeting with Mort and his wife, Catherine. "Most people feel the same way."

Ray recognized that landing a museum of international scope in the county would be a cultural coup, and he set about hunting for a location. He originally envisioned the museum in Palm Beach Gardens, believing it would appeal to families in that fast-growing community. The city council expressed interest in the museum during a January 1991 meeting, but several council members expressed reservations about using a parcel of land near the Gardens Mall that was earmarked for cultural development, Ray says.

While Palm Beach Gardens dawdled over the proposed museum, the Boca Raton Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) embraced the idea, because the agency was desperately seeking to bring civic or cultural attractions to Mizner Park. The CRA had been under fire for subsidizing developers with city land and taxpayer dollars. Bowing to pressure that local folk get something more from such deals, the city council designated cultural set-asides at Mizner Park. The Caldwell Theatre Company had flirted with relocating to the park in 1989 but then passed on the deal. The CRA in January 1993 unanimously approved construction of the cartoon museum. The city leased the land to the museum at the rate of $1 per year for 100 years.

Walker had good reason to feel confident of success in Boca Raton. Before settling on the Mizner Park site, the museum had initiated two feasibility studies, one assessing the location, the other gauging expected local contributions. The former study concluded the museum "has a tiger by the tail" given the 5000 people a day who were visiting Mizner Park, Walker says. The financial study concluded the museum could raise money locally, though not without difficulties -- partly from competing fundraisers. Other arts and cultural organizations were gearing up to raise major bucks in the early 1990s, including the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Caldwell, and the Norton Gallery of Art. An informal survey conducted around that time by the Palm Beach County Cultural Council found that 36 organizations were set on raising a combined $80 million.

The museum received large donations for construction, but most were from the cartoon industry. Charles Schulz contributed $1 million, and Marvel Entertainment Group pledged the same. The Hearst Foundation donated $500,000. Other large gifts came from "Garfield" cartoonist Jim Davis, the Knight Foundation, Hallmark Cards, the Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post. But overall the fundraising proved to be difficult, taking four years to raise the $6.3 million needed to begin the first phase of construction. No money was available to complete the second and third floors, which remain unfinished and inaccessible by stairs or elevator to this day.

Renamed the International Museum of Cartoon Art in 1993, it opened in Mizner Park on March 10, 1996. Walker considers the opening the most exciting event of the museum's 27-year history. "We had a big tent there, and Disney sent down all their characters, and Universal sent down their cartoon characters," Walker says dreamily. "Then we opened up the doors, and everyone came in. I got ticket number one. My wife started crying; she was so happy. God, what a glorious moment that was. I was so proud of the museum and what we'd done. I really thought we were on our way."

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