by Kate Stafford
The Toonseum may sit at the edge of the cultural district, but it is at the forefront of celebrating pop culture as an art form. The museum is “not a little kid’s museum,” founder and President Joe Wos explains, to dispel any hesitations that adults can’t fully enjoy the exhibits centered on cartoons and comics. Visitors will feel their inner child’s glee as they walk into the Toonseum and are greeted with the gift shop of geekery and a life-size Acme anvil dangling overhead. Music drifts softly throughout the newly expanded space on Liberty Avenue and as visitors hum along with the “mah-nah-mah-nahs” of The Muppets soundtrack there is an immediate sense that this is someplace special.
One of only three of its kind in the whole country, Wos founded the Toonseum seven years ago after being inspired by a trip to the Charles Schultz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Wos recalled of his visit, “This is it. This is the next museum movement.”
A Pittsburgh native, Wos had no doubt that the city was perfect to house the museum. “Pittsburgh is the birthplace of pop culture,” Wos said as he listed the impressive art firsts that happened right here in the city.
He gave the example of Jackie Olmes, who was born in Pittsburgh. She was the first African-American woman cartoonist, and the Toonseum’s latest exhibit celebrates her and the history of women in comics in “Wonder Woman: On Page & Off.”
The exhibit starts with comics from the early 19th century and some are even supplied from Joe Wos’ personal collection such as a gorgeous array of flapper comics from the 1920s. The evolution of women in the comics industry is displayed decade by decade along the Toonseum’s walls ending with the creation of Wonder Woman, her bangles and tiara displayed prominently underneath her framed comics.
From perusing the gallery, the passion in which the exhibit was created is evident and speaks for the women that work hard for success in an industry still largely operating as a boy’s club. It was important then for Joe Wos to invite prominent women in Pittsburgh to sponsor the exhibit such as Hilda Pang Fu and Mary Leonard.
When seeking sponsors that understood the importance of celebrating women’s success, Carlow University immediately came to mind.
Wos attended Carlow for college and his degree path maybe something many current students can relate to. Wos started with a major in Art Therapy, then switched to Art History, then to changed Art Philosophy, and after several major changes, Wos created his own independent study. With Carlow’s permission, Wos majored in History and Aesthetics of Sequential Art and Carlow was “the forefront of the comics major”. Had they kept the degree path after Wos’ departure, Carlow would have been the first college to have such a major.
These milestones are important for an industry still considered by many to be “lowbrow,” even though comics are as old as the United States. No other country has the distinction of having their history continually documented in the form of comics such as the political cartoons that continue to run in many newspapers and magazines.
Wos expresses that “without comics and cartoons, there would be no Warhol.”
The Toonseum embraces this and works to eliminate the stigma around comics. In order to do this, the Toonseum prides itself as one of the hardest working museums in the country. It will soon run their 80th exhibit since their founding and their size allows them to run 10-20 exhibits per year, ensuring that a visit will never be boring.
Upcoming events after the Wonder Woman’s run ends in March include the Indy Comix Expo with Trina Roberts, exhibits on the art from the golden books, and the Science behind Super Materials which will center on scientific explanations on items such as Captain America’s shield.
As the first museum in the country to accept Bitcoin, the Toonseum is well in tune with the cultural zeitgeists of the day, even running “Color me Happy” concurrent with Wonder Woman which is an interactive exhibit on creating memes out of vintage ads from the 50s and 60s.
Wos will be performing March 1st, live illustrating as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performs, and if you can’t get enough of the Toonseum after your visit, they have a huge social media presence including a constantly updated Facebook page that could brighten anyone’s morning.