Saturday, January 02, 2010

Goodbye Kokeshi / Hello Kitty 

(I wrote this in November but didn’t get around to posting it.)

OK, time to crawl back out of the cave and into the light again as we whip round to the approaching end of another jam-packed year. I know it doesn’t seem like it was jam-packed for LATDA except that this year’s successful Kokeshi show was a great undertaking during a year of global and personal challenges.

And a success it was. Over 20,000 visitors experienced the exhibition in person, with countless others who were able to get a taste of Kokeshi via the many web-based testimonies and the NBC TV spot with Cary Berglund.

The Custom Kokeshi 2009 portion of the exhibition was also a great success with 56 of the 105 kokeshi going to new homes. This was a great experiment in the museum world…including the display of artwork for sale in the galleries.

That traditional kokeshi were originally created as “commodities” to be sold, played into the exhibition. Part of the revenue generated from the sales went to support JANM (whose permanent collection does not include kokeshi.) That LATDA did not benefit from the sales is proper, since LATDA’s collection DOES include such objects. Whether or not future museum exhibitions will be allowed to work this way at JANM or anywhere else is a question. But in light of the lack of public, corporate, or government support, museums have to figure out new ways to survive.

Hey, I promised you transparency in museum operations, and this is part of that process.

So the obvious question on everyone’s lips is “What’s next for LATDA?” There is not an equally simple answer to that. One component of a LATDA show is the mission of the host venue. What we are considering next is to have a venue that does not restrict us in that way.

I think you all are getting the idea of what a LATDA exhibition includes. It isn’t simply a dry, historical, nostalgic display of toys, and it isn’t just a gallery show of lots of cool stuff for sale. We like connecting you to the people behind the toys, the process of inspiration that culminates in an object of play and amusement. We like connecting the past to the present and opening the door to the future of toys. We don’t dictate or judge, but we do ponder what would happen if people did pay more attention to how toys have shaped minds and cultures of today and how they will shape those of the future.

Which brings me to the editorial portion of this blog entry – my visit to the recent Three Apples / Hello Kitty show at Royal T, in Culver City, which ran from 10/24 till 11/15, a mere blip of a run for a show with so much drawing power.

Would that LATDA had a permanent home, we would have loved to do a Hello Kitty show. Would we have done it the same way? Probably not exactly (although the ancillary programming, while not particularly educational, was formidable!) The sheer number of artifacts in the show was enough to make a collections manager tremble in terror (and maybe a little delight.) Placement of the artifacts was completely without interpretive labels except in one area where traditional Japanese craft houses presented their homage to the smile-less feline. Perhaps the explanation was a requirement from the manufacturers. But it would have been edifying to have some sense of historical development throughout the show.

The display was tantalizing in that the showcase areas were essentially large walk-around vitrines. It was frustrating not to get closer than 5 or 6 feet away from some of the objects. At one point I saw a photographer inside one of the display areas and envied her proximity to the artifacts. Some of the objects were obviously old and used, perhaps on loan by private collectors. It would have been nice to know more about the provenance of these items. My favorite pieces were the miniature food.

The group show curated by JapanLa was a great addition to the whole, although it would have been interesting to have the artists design actual HK product as opposed to just depicting her image in various artistic styles. For me, Yoskay Yamamoto’s piece came the closest to objectifying HK in a new and different way.

But perhaps that is what is at the essence of the difference between gallery shows and museum exhibitions. I’m not saying that one is better than the other – we definitely need both kinds to encompass the constant creation of content.

The nature of a museum exhibition is that it spans a lot of time, both in creation and in substance. There is a definite educational component which requires a great deal of fact-checking and research about the subject. This takes time. There is also a respect for the artifacts that means that you assume responsibility for the objects as if they were in your care for perpetuity. This sometimes surprises artists or collectors when they see the care with which collections people handle objects for an exhibition.

In a way, the difference between a gallery show and a museum exhibition is like the difference between playing with your nieces and nephews and having kids of your own. There is a lot of long-term responsibility for the latter that goes beyond temporary stimulation. Having a child (or a museum exhibition) is about 24-hour security, insurance, constant care and attention. You have to be mindful of the past, adaptable to the constant change of the present, and have an eye for the future, all when you are tired and worn out.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

On Mascots and Imaginings 

Oh, just click here.


Monday, July 06, 2009

Word is getting out! 

Even though the press release went out with an incorrect word in the title (mea culpa, I did proof it, but missed the version of the title in the header) posts are appearing daily about the impending opening of the exhibition. Today I ran across this curious one from a blog that appears to be affiliated with Sanrio.

I can't figure if it was translated from English to Japanese and back to English again.

July 3rd, 2009 | Tags:
A brand new exhibition, Kokeshi: From Folk Toy (see above) to Art Toy, orderly by a Los Angeles Toy, Doll & Amusements Museum in partnership with a Japanese American National Museum , will move together a normal Japanese doll with hundreds of examples of la mode [wha?]as well as law [is this the translation for "custom"?] kokeshi combined by American as well as general artists commencement upon Jul …

Well, any PR is good PR!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kokeshi Are Coming 

Yes, many kokeshi are coming to the Japanese American National Museum in a collaborative exhibition with LATDA. It's a lot of work conceiving and birthing over 300 babies, and we aren't even talking about the artists. Yet. But I thought you'd be interested to see how the curator-in-chief spends her evenings. Designing the show? No. Haranguing for money? No. Designing the caterer's platter? See for yourself.

Oh, and despite what the blog says, Maria didn't post this.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Toy Challenge Redux 

After three years without an invitation, LATDA was finally asked back to be a judge at the annual Sally Ride Science TOYchallenge. Unfortunately I was the only LATDA representative who could attend, and had to rely on photos of each entry our team reviewed to keep them straight in my mind. (Sorry about the positioning of the photos. This is my first time trying to post images.)

The venue changed from the Aviation Museum to Qualcomm Stadium – an exciting prospect for the contestants to have the entire stadium to themselves. Although the stadium seemed larger, the size of the competition seems to have shrunk since 2005 (reviewed in this blog for May 2005 I believe there were 60+ entries for this year, whereas in 2005 there were closer to 100. There were four teams of judges – each team consisting of 4-5. It turned out that many of the judges were returnees, having four or more competitions under their belts. I was surprised to recognize one of the judges as a former student judge from 2005.

As usual, the judges consisted of professionals and students from the science and engineering spectrum (it was, after all, sponsored and organized by Sally Ride SCIENCE). Among the minority fields represented were myself and Deborah Ryan, department chair in Toy Design at Otis College of Art and Design.

Although the competition is aimed at encouraging young girls to compete in fields that could lead to careers in science and engineering, boys were allowed to be part of each team. Similarly the judges were gender-balanced and I had an equal difficulty understanding any of the engineering patter that was going on regardless of whether a male or female engineer was speaking. They, however, seemed to understand one another perfectly.

My team was one of the two judging the very large category of Games for the Family. It seems that many kids want to take a crack at designing a better board game – something that addresses their interests more than just providing a learning challenge. Consequently there were two games designed around pets and pet care, two games using penguins as features, one with many Disneyland references, one with shopping in a mall as a theme, and one with a pirate theme. (Surprisingly, the pirate theme was injected because of girls lobbying for it and not the boys on the team – thank you Johnny Depp.) There was one game that seemed wholly original that used lasers and mirrors, but when we got back to confer with the other judges, one of them said such a game already existed – and she owned one! I kept worrying during the presentation that someone would be blinded by accident.

Overall the games varied from being sweet and non-stimulating to being so complex that I couldn’t follow the instructions in the seven-minute presentations. Many of the games simply combined trivia questions with variations on board shape and density (more short cuts, more wild cards, or more penalties).

The winner of the overall West Coast competition was one of the groups we judged. The game for the family was called Puff that Penguin. What made it stand out was that it a.) wasn’t a board game b.) involved some physical activity that made the players look very silly c.) required a lot of actual engineering processes like turning kinetic energy into another form of energy, by using “a foot-powered vortex generator”. It also had an altruistic component – a brochure directing the “buyer” to a site for endangered penguin adoption.

Unfortunately this year there wasn’t a lot of extra time to check out entries from the other categories. The judging was very fast and efficient and the number of entries exceeded what could be viewed in the time allotted.

It was very inspiring to see the efforts made by these kids. It made us wonder if there might be other variations of this type of competition – kids designing toys for themselves – that might emphasize other values than science and engineering. The age group was just right. Old enough to have some history of toys, but not too old to be jaded into submission by advertising and marketing.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Kokeshi Krazy 

When we were first thinking about vinyl art toys as a subject for a show, we tried to put them in some sort of historical context (because that’s what museums do…contextualize objects). An interesting parallel to individual artists mixing specific personal style with mass production happened in Japan in the mid -19th century with the popularization of kokeshi, the limbless, wooden, folk dolls. In fact, one of the artists whose work is associated with the current art toy movement describes his work as modern day kokeshi.

So that was the first starting point for what eventually became the Beyond Ultraman show – an exhibit showing the parallels between the rise of kokeshi making/collecting in Japan moving into the West, and the rise of vinyl toy making/collecting from Japan and other parts of Asia moving into the West. History-repeats-itself sort of show. And within that, an exploration of gender roles between makers and collectors. Sounds pretty cool, no? Well, after doing a lot of research on kokeshi, the concept of the exhibition and fit for a venue underwent drastic changes, and kokeshi fell by the wayside.

Still, it never left our minds that kokeshi were an interesting phenomenon. During casual conversation with people of all sorts, we discovered that there were almost as many closet kokeshi enthusiasts in the art world as vinyl toy lovers. To date though, only one book dedicated to kokeshi has been published in English, whereas many have been published in Japanese – some on single artists!

Then last year, through some of the casual kokeshi connections that were established during the R & D phase, we got word of a show at Subtext Gallery in San Diego. It was like your basic custom vinyl toy show – get a platform or canvas toy and send it to a bunch of swell artists and ask them to customize them in their own style. But this show was using wooden kokeshi as blanks.

The Kokeshi Show at Subtext was the brainchild of Chris Conway, a San Diego graphic designer and illustrator with a degree and interest in Art Education. Her 2007 exhibition consisted of 85 customized wooden kokeshi dolls produced by 78 artists from 13 different countries. Her interest in the designer toy culture combined with a desire to see a more feminine and positive influence in that movement led her to use the kokeshi doll as a vehicle for a custom toy. She also connected her exhibition to the Japanese Bunka-no-hi, or Culture Day. (Conway has a strong link to Japan through her father who was stationed there and exposed her to all manner of Japanese culture.)

Suddenly the idea of a larger exhibition about kokeshi started to take on a new shape and relevance. We took a trip down to see the show in San Diego and meet the curator. And LATDA is now in the throes of developing its next exhibition.

Until the ink is set on a contract, we aren’t at liberty to announce the venue, but we do have a tentative date set for June 2009. It’s a much shorter lead time than the last exhibition, but as we mentioned, we had some work done already. And lest you think we are skimping on scale to get this done, know that we will be including the work of about a dozen artists some who are not local, and that Chris Conway will be curating another of her shows that will be part of our exhibition – a show within a show – and she is targeting 100 artists from all over the world!

What we need to do ASAP is fundraise for this exhibit. As always, we are mindful of tight budgets and bad economies, but the support of our members is always appreciated when it comes to paying the increased costs of postage and printing.

Watch this space!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Beyond Beyond Ultraman -- A New Year, A New Show 

I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that Beyond Ultraman has come and gone already. The last day of the show we had a program with David Gonzales that brought in a standing-room-only crowd of over 150 to a space that held chairs for 70. It was a heady way to end a successful exhibition. A great front page article in the Pasadena Weekly preceded the event and attracted a wonderfully diverse crowd, many who had never visited the PMCA before.

We are still in the process of summarizing the metrics of the show (how many visitors, how many press imprints etc.) But here are a few factoids: The exhibit appeared on television three times – on KNBC news as part of Pasadena’s Art Night coverage (10/12/07); on KTLA as part of Gayle Anderson’s live broadcast (11/27/07); and again on KNBC for a solo piece by Cary Berglund on Beyond Ultraman (12/13/07). The exhibit was written up in the Los Angeles Times Guide section at the beginning and the end of the exhibition run. Other articles about the show appeared in Artillery Magazine and the Daily Bruin. David Gonzales was featured in two large articles because of the show – one in the LA Times and one in the Pasadena Weekly. We were a top listing on for many weeks and managed to appear in all the best blogs.

So where do we go from here? Well, we are currently working on another museum collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum, with an exhibition scheduled to open in 2009 (yes, 2009 does seem far away, but in museum time, it is tomorrow!) OK, I guess I can say this much, the show will be about kokeshi dolls – the simple, limbless wooden folk dolls that have come to embody Japanese-ness. But it won’t just be a display of old kokeshi dolls – it will have a LATDA twist to it which we hope will send people away with a broadened view of this cultural icon. We will be working with Christina Conway, curator of the lovely and wonderful kokeshi show at Subtext Gallery in San Diego. We will also be working with a number of artists and collectors as well as combing the National Museum’s permanent collection for significant kokeshi.

Since submitting the proposal for the new show, a number of eerie signs have come to pass that (to me)reinforce the energy of the venture. The best happened during a recent first visit to the Shine Gallery in Farmer’s Market led to the discovery of a pair of vintage kokeshi-shaped, hand-painted paper lanterns. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that there was a vintage cardboard box next to the lanterns, the assumption being that this was the box the lanterns were stored in. When I looked at the yellowed mailing label, it bore the logo of “Quon-Quon Co.” Imagine my astonishment, as this was where both my parents worked when they met. Cue a lower jaw-drop when the person whose name appeared in the address field of the 50+year-old box was a man that I knew had been a friend of my mother’s – who had no apparent connection to Quon-Quon, according to her. Well, maybe that doesn’t read as dramatically as it seemed to me as I stood over the case at Farmer’s Market, but it made me feel as if the kokeshi show was about to lead me to some very interesting connections. The pair of the Shine Gallery lanterns will be part of the exhibition.

Nothing, they say, can be harder than your first major exhibition. Beyond Ultraman was not only hard, it was audacious. Thanks to everyone who came to see our show and who became new members or supported LATDA’s mission by shopping. We hope to get faster at producing audacious and interesting shows for your enjoyment and edification. Your faith keeps us stoked!

P.S. Credit to my husband who pointed out the Quon-Quon box to me at the Shine Gallery!

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