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10/03 2016

Museum of Neon Art (MONA)

The warm, electric glow and mid-century charm of neon signs are enduring features of Los Angeles’s historical buildings, but some of the city’s most beloved examples have not been seen since the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) closed its downtown LA location in 2011. Almost five years later, the museum is now set to reopen in nearby Glendale, where visitors can see old city landmarks like the Brown Derby light up and return to life.

Founded in 1981 by artists Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins, MONA exhibits historical neon signs and works by contemporary artists using neon. The institution has likely lasted this long because of a continued fascination with neon, now more than 100 years after the neon sign was invented. Artist Dan Flavin famously used neon for his minimalist sculptures, while more recently, contemporary artists like Glenn Ligon and Tracy Emin have created evocative text-based works using neon letters.

MONA officially reopens in February  with two exhibitions. “Illuminations” features contemporary neon art and the museum’s historical neon signs, ranging from kinetic light installations powered by movement to assemblage sculptures made from neon lights, scrap metal, and barbed wire. In the museum lobby, “It’s About Time” displays a selection of mid-century neon wall clocks that used to be ubiquitous across Southern California diners, hotels, drug stores, and other businesses.

Preserving old neon signs are also a way of remembering the city’s histories, particularly those of communities and businesses that have come and gone over the years. The Iwata Camera sign, one of the items in the museum’s opening exhibition, dates back to the 1940s,  from the historic Little Tokyo neighborhood. Another item from the permanent collection, the Holiday Bowlsign, comes from a 1958 Googie-style restaurant and bowling alley that served the integrated black, white, and Japanese American communities of Crenshaw.

Two new reproductions, paid for by the city of Glendale, are permanently installed at the museum. The 1948 Virginia Court Motel’s “Neon Diver”  sign sits atop the museum building, while the leaky faucet from Clayton’s Plumbing of Westwood stands above a nearby pedestrian walkway. Recent donations to the museum also include Bakersfield’s Green Frog Market sign, with its tuxedo and top hat–wearing amphibian, and Frogtown’s Doc Kilzum Pesticide sign, which will undergo restoration in a workshop open to the public this year.

The museum offer courses in hands-on learning to show the process of neon bending, a form of glass-blowing and it takes a lot of time and commitment to master it.

The museum’s reopening occurs after unsuccessful attempts to keep the institution in downtown LA. The city of Glendale ultimately committed to funding the museum’s new site and construction, part of a larger plan to further develop its own downtown neighborhood.

MONA also offers nighttime bus tours to classic landmarks like the neon pagodas of Chinatown and the recently renovated neon pinstripes of Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown LA. The existence of these landmarks depend on the vagaries of LA real estate and development, but as long as the museum is around, they now have a place to go once they’re retired from service.



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