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The 2014 MoCCA Arts Fest will take place on April 5th and 6th from 11am to 6pm at the Armory Building (68 Lexington Avenue) in New York City. The festival has quickly become one of the most prominent small press comic festivals in the country. So in anticipation of the festival, it seemed like a good time to discuss the short history of the MoCCA Fest and its namesake, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.
The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art is a unique institution. Although there are many museums in New York City dedicated to traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, performance, etc.), the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, or MoCCA, was the first institution in the city to pay homage to the rich history and contemporary artistry in the comic book and cartooning mediums. MoCCA was established as a non-profit in 2001 by Lawrence Klein at a location in lower Manhattan. The museum covered the many sides that comic books and cartooning has developed over the past century: super heroes, classic cartoons, underground comics, and experimental work.
In 2003, MoCCA opened an art gallery in its space. Since the museum space, which was housed in a building with many other offices, was relatively small compared to most freestanding museums, MoCCA displayed one exhibit at a time. The museum exhibits usually displayed original artwork, historical artifacts, and some explanatory texts. MoCCA had many interesting exhibits over the years, including ones focused on Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Archie Comics, Harvey Comics, and Richie Rich.
Soon after its opening, MoCCA established its own small press and independent comics festival. The first MoCCA Fest occurred in 2002 and featured over 2,000 guests and attendees. In its third year, the show expanded from one to two days. The first seven years of MoCCA Fest took place in the Puck Building, which is very close to the original MoCCA headquarters. Often, the MoCCA Fest was split between the two locations, with exhibitors being housed in the Puck Building and panels occurring at MoCCA. In 2009, the entire show moved to the Armory building near midtown Manhattan. The Armory space allowed exhibitors and artists’ tables to be on the main floor while panels occurred in smaller room on the lower floors.
The MoCCA Fest was an opportunity to combine the museum’s focus on the history of comics and cartooning with the best of contemporary comics – established and emerging independent comic creators and cartoonists. The MoCCA Fest also awarded a prize to an artist whose work “elevated the medium.” Past winners of the prize included Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman, Neal Adams, Jerry Robinson, Bill Plympton, David Mazzucchelli, Al Jaffee, and Alison Bechdel. The range of these creators shows how MoCCA has always given attention and acclaim to all sides of comics and cartooning.
Arts institutions and non-profits constantly face difficulties raising funds, especially as the U.S. economy took a downturn in the late 2000’s. MoCCA was one of the institutions to struggle financially, leading to them having to close their physical location, including the MoCCA headquarters and art gallery in July 2012. Despite the increasing prominence and respect towards comic books as an artistic medium, organizations that cover comic and cartoon history still face an uphill battle since many comic fans are content to buy comics books and watch movies without much interest in the background and history of the medium. However, the Society of Illustrators quickly stepped in to help preserve MoCCA’s place in NYC. Now, MoCCA has a space in the Society of Illustrators’ headquarters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (128 East 63rd Street). The most recent MoCCA exhibition, which ended in early March, was focused on the cartoonist Charles Rodrigues.
The 2014 MoCCA Fest, which is the second one to be organized by the Society of Illustrators, promises to be a good one. The guests of honor include Fiona Staples, the illustrator on the hugely popular Image Comics series Saga, Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Are You My Mother?), and Howard Cruse (Wendel). Bechdel and Cruse will have a panel conversations on Sunday, Art Spiegelman and Joost Swarte will have a panel conversation on Saturday, and Staples will have a Q & A panel on Sunday. Many other creators will appear or hold panels over the two days. Other comic creators in attendance include Adrian Tomine, Michael DeForge, Ann Nocenti, Dean Haspiel, James Kolchalka, Chip Kidd, Gabrielle Bell and many others. You can get further updates about the MoCCA Fest on the official Tumblr and Twitter accounts.