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

Norman and Charlotte Codo of Boca Raton donated $125,000 to the art museum, putting them among the 50 or so people who contributed more than $100,000. So why not the cartoon museum? "It's based on my wife, really, who's an artist and has been involved with the museum of art -- not the cartoon museum -- over a period of about 14 years," Codo says. "Over that period of time, we've built a lot of friendships and have a lot of fond memories of the art museum."

Cultural council director Ray doesn't believe that potential donors have held back contributions because cartoon art is regarded as lowbrow. So why has there been a dearth of local benefactors? "Ummm, how to put this diplomatically," Ray begins. "A lack of identification of the Walkers, their board, and their project, with "Old Boca.' The complaints I heard shortly after opening were that "the right people weren't being invited to their leadership'; they weren't bringing in the "right moves' to win over "Old Boca'; "they didn't have the right message for Boca.' And the comments weren't about the quality of the collection. That's incontrovertible -- it's American art, world art. I never heard that used. I heard instead, social discontent and... snobbery -- I'll use the word. There's a cadre of Boca Raton that's very closed, self-contained, and I think the cartoon museum failed to penetrate that shell. And by failing there it didn't have time to win support from new Boca Ratonian wealth that the Boca art museum has been built with."

Ray doesn't consider the situation hopeless though. "In a community of our wealth, gifts of $100,000, $500,000, $1 million occur every day -- for the right institution or cause," he says. "This is the richest community in America; the cartoon collection is one of the finest of its kind in America, if not the finest. The Walkers are two of the most wonderful people you'll ever meet. You've got the tools to fix the engine as far as I'm concerned. But it may have become too tiring for [the Walkers]. I appreciate that, and I sense that when I talk to them. It's their call."

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.

Walker described the museum's saga as "frightening and depressing" shortly before the failed auction in June. "It's tough to go out and raise money when people know you're in financial trouble," he laments. "It's pouring good money after bad." In fact three donors recently withdrew pledges that amounted to about $500,000 over the next two years. (Walker declines to name the contributors.)

Yes, Walker admits, things should have been done differently.

"When I think about it now, I was much too enthusiastic," he confesses, remembering the words of one Boca Ratonian who told him early on why the museum wouldn't get much support: ""You're not saving a child's life. You're not feeding the hungry. There's no heart in what you're doing.'"

Walker says he isn't averse to moving the museum back to the New York area. "A lot of people say that's where we should have stayed in the first place. Six months out of the year it's kind of dead down [in Boca]." But now, after years of fretting, Walker's tone is weary as he drifts into nostalgia about the museum's early days in New York: "I'd lend whatever name and prestige I had to raise money. I'd drop in once or twice a week and see how the staff was doing. But I always thought I'd turn it over to someone else someday and let them do all that."

The cartoonist looks fatigued sitting in the museum's business office June 29, but he's not ready to let go just yet. Walker's doughy face is red, more the flush of stress than sunburn. He's wearing a tan sport coat, white shirt, and gray slacks. On the wide tie hanging from his neck, Snoopy waves his fist defiantly at the Red Baron. Walker's flat voice reveals no such bravado this day. In a final bid to keep the museum from folding, he has paid SunTrust $200,000 from his own pocket; in a press release, he added that "the Walker well has now run dry. Unless we are able to secure more financial support on an ongoing basis, the museum's future in Boca Raton remains iffy at best."

Walker says he's buoyed by negotiations with a national health club chain interested in buying the building for $3 million. The health club would then occupy the second floor and lease space to the cartoon museum. Still, if no solution presents itself within two months, museum staff will have to pack up the collection and store it, he says.

"I'm generally an optimist," Walker concludes, "You know... the glass is half full?" He looks at the glass of water on the table before him. It's clearly below the half mark. He looks at it and laughs softly. "That's half," he declares.

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