The lights are dim inside the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, California, setting a dramatic backdrop for the glow emanating from dozens of vintage signs suspended from its ceiling and hung on its walls. With their splashy lettering and whimsical shapes, the individual pieces advertise everything from barbecue restaurants to bowling alleys. They speak to a bygone era—and a dying art.
To Eric Lynxwiler, a curator at the museum, preserving and showing these neon signs connects us with our not-so-distant past, and reminds us how our cities once looked.
"It’s important to remember where we were," Lynxwiler says. "A lot of people assume that what we have today [with respect to signage] is what it’s always been; however, we once had these fantastic, electric pieces of signage dotting the nation. We lose a something inspirational when signs disappear. It's important to keep this culture alive for people to reminisce and wax nostalgic."
MONA was founded in 1981 and relocated multiple times in the L.A. area until it closed in 2011, while it prepared for the construction of its permanent home. The new 8,400-square-foot building by Shimoda Design Group opened in November 2015. In addition to having wide open space that can accommodate the collection—some signs are as wide as two garage doors and require cranes to move—the structure is customized to have plenty of outlets on the walls, ceilings, floors, and columns, and features its own mini power plant—the museum draws about four times the energy as a typical American house—to ensure that it never blows a fuse keeping the signs illuminated or HVAC system running.
Over the years, MONA pulled signs from dumpsters, saved them from the wrecking ball, and accepted them as donations from people who believe that everyday signs of the past should be elevated to an art form. MONA has also faithfully fixed many of them along the way, and when space to store the behemoths ran out, trusted friends and family with room to spare graciously volunteered to keep the items safe. The museum is also at work on an education lab that will let visitors see how its conservation team fixes the deteriorated wiring, broken bulbs, and peeling paint that plague many of the aging relics.
Now, MONA is hosting an exhibition called "Hats Off to Hollywood"—the third show in its new building—showcasing the result of its years of collecting, which focuses on signs from around L.A. While all of the signs share a provenance, they're visually different and speak to the artistry that once adorned the region's streets: the recently restored sign from the Brown Derby restaurant, the twinkling marquee from Chris n' Pitts Bar-B-Q, and an animated (meaning certain lights turn on an off, giving the illusion that the figure in the sign moves) advertisement for a masonry company featuring a bricklayer in action.
"We don't have a particular neon signage design type that exemplifies us as Angelenos, but we do have huge quantities," Lynxwiler says. "As a city, we grew up with the automobile and all signage in L.A. is based on the driver, not the pedestrian—we craved neon. Every business began to compete with one another with a sign on the door, then in the window, then on top of the roof. L.A. once had visually clogged streetscapes awash with bright, shiny color. In my eye it was gorgeous."
While neon had its heyday from the 1940s and '50s, by 1970 it was considered trashy—and many cities had already removed many of the signs. (Interestingly, Hong Kong, a city famous for its neon, is in the middle of removing its famous signs.)
When MONA brings a sign into its collection, it evaluates it on three criteria: how it looks, the technical difficulty required to fabricate the sign, and its cultural significance.
"All of these qualities are malleable and reflect our personal opinion," Lynxwiler says. "Aesthetics is the easiest. Is the sign pretty? We got to have it. Does it show technical merit? Like tube bending revealing the artist's hand, animation, if the use of tubes or the color combination is something really spectacular. Then there’s the cultural importance, which is truly in the eye of the beholder." Cultural significance is one of the most difficult for the museum's curators and directors to agree upon. Even if someone is willing to donate a sign MONA, the high cost of restoration (sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars, as was the case for the sign from Grauman's Chinese Theater) and spatial constraints of storage means that many are passed over.
The popularity of neon signs comes and goes, and today's resurgence in popular interest has led to some unexpected challenges. While the handlers and conservationists haven't broken a single bulb after any of the signs have come under MONA's stewardship, fans of the museum have caused some accidental damage. "Our crew has done great," Lynxwiler says. "They’re working with giant pieces of metal that weigh multiple tons, are filled with electricity, and covered in glass—what they're doing is insane. It’s the guest who break [the bulbs]. We’re trying to figure out a way to get people from feeling too familiar with the signs, but in an iPhone society, everyone wants to take selfies and they back up into the signs." That said, the selfie issue validates MONA's cultural value and shows how fascinated people are with the vintage neon signs.
"What we are saving is an art and a craft," Lynxwiler says. "Every glass tube is made by hand. Even if we don’t know the artist—none of these is signed—we want to celebrate the fact that it was made by a craftsperson. They selected a design, a color, a bending technique, and animated this piece. We want to make sure this dying art form stays alive in perpetuity."
[Photos: courtesy Museum of Neon Art]