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

In the meantime that late summer and fall, more bail-out schemes were incubated, but none hatched. A proposal in August to move the Boca Raton Public Library into the museum went nowhere. Then, in November, the owners of the Museum of Miniatures in Los Angeles put the kibosh on speculation that it would merge with the cartoon museum. The owners, Carole and Barry Kaye of Boca Raton, chose instead to retire and sell the miniature reproductions of buildings and landmarks, valued at $25 million. Jim and Marta Batmasian, Boca real-estate investors, broached the idea of opening a human rights museum beside the cartoon display. Nothing has come of that idea.

Walker, who says he's sunk about $2 million of his own money into the museum, had long fought the notion of selling the "Plane Crazy" storyboards. But when no large donor stepped forward by this winter, the museum announced it would auction off the Mickey Mouse art in May, along with original art from the "Dick Tracy," "Beetle Bailey," and "Prince Valiant" Sunday strips.

But with a catastrophic consistency rivaling the Biblical tale of Job, the museum came up empty-handed. Simultaneous auctions were held by Manhattan-based Guernsey's and Leftbid.com on May 19, but the sale was plagued with confusion over who was bidding on what, lousy online connections, and low bids. When the e-smoke cleared, the highest authenticated bid was $700,000; the minimum bid required for sale of the "Plane Crazy" art was $800,000.

The museum is a catacomb of original drawings from Sunday strips, comic books, magazines, and editorial pages. Young visitors can try their 'toon talents on computers and drawing boards.
The museum is a catacomb of original drawings from Sunday strips, comic books, magazines, and editorial pages. Young visitors can try their 'toon talents on computers and drawing boards.

With expectations dropping, a second auction, scheduled for June 8, set a minimum bid of $650,000. The highest bid received was $525,000.

"What has happened at these auctions is a travesty," Hamilton says. "It's been a joke from beginning to end. Right now this stuff has got a terrible reputation; [it's] what we call "burnt goods,' because it's been mishandled from one end to the other." He still believes "Plane Crazy" is worth millions of dollars but that the museum failed to undertake the lengthy publicity campaign required for a sale.

"When it comes to the value of really rare items, you can't just suddenly pop out something and say, "This is worth a lot of money, who'll give it to me?'" Hamilton explains. "Nobody's going to buy that way. But if a collector gets hold of it, he tours it, exhibits it, gets quoted in the press." The collector lets it be known that he'd sell the piece only for millions more than what he paid. "But somewhere down the line -- four, five years -- a really wealthy person comes along and asks him, "What do you really want for it?' Unavailability is desirability."

Critics may debate the wisdom of key decisions made by the museum during the past decade -- moving to Boca, building big, trying to dump Mickey at a fire sale -- but most everyone will agree the museum hasn't received the hefty local contributions it needs to thrive.

Why not? Eisner pulls no punches in his assessment: "You're dealing with a situation here where a very wealthy person in Boca Raton who wants to give something to the culture of a community can't go to the country club on Saturday and boast about the fact they just gave $100,000 to the cartoon museum. They'd much rather say they gave it to the ballet or the fine arts museum. What I've just articulated is the blunt reality of the situation. My attitude is: Shame on them because this art form is a very important cultural medium in our society."

Christopher Larmoyeux, the new chairman of the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, disagrees. "I don't think you can sit here and blame the public because they didn't view [the museum] as an upscale organization," he says. Comparing the local support the Boca art museum has gotten with the cartoon collection, Larmoyeux continues: "We're blessed in Palm Beach County with a great number of philanthropic individuals, but each person who gives money gives it for his or her own particular purpose -- [potential donors might not give if] they didn't like the concept or weren't drawn to it or the marketing was insufficient.

"Will the cartoon museum survive? It's pretty doubtful. The survivability of cultural organizations in South Florida, the entire state, is entirely dependent on private givers."

Henry Deppe, an executive vice president at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, headed that museum's fundraising drive, which garnered $13.3 million in three years -- the lion's share from local sources. He says the effort was meticulously orchestrated using a 65-page outline of philosophy, goals, plans, and budget. "Our number one modus operandi was having dinner parties at which we invited people and told them the story of the museum, what it means to the community, and why a 50-year-old institution like ours needs a larger home to display our 3000 pieces of art," Deppe explains.

But Deppe says the art museum was looking for dollars in a different "marketplace" than was the cartoon museum. "A cartoon museum is certainly a wonderful institution to have available to the community, but it appeals to a specific group of people -- not necessarily the same group [that prefers] the so-called classic or fine art," Deppe says. "We have a broader audience, we believe, than the cartoon museum. Everybody has fine art in their homes, particularly more affluent people. But how many people have cartoons in their home?"

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