GLENDALE, Calif. — 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 this Saturday 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.
“The quality of the light is special,” MONA executive director Kim Koga told Hyperallergic in an email. “One visiting fourth grader remarked upon seeing neon for the first time, ‘It’s alive,’ and that really sums it up.”
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 Bowl sign, 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.
“At the Glendale location we specifically wanted to be able to show the process [of neon bending] and offer courses in hands-on learning,” Koga said. “Neon is essentially a form of glass-blowing and it takes a lot of time and commitment to master it … To keep neon around for the next 25+ years we need to pass on these skills to another generation.”
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.
“We needed to find support from a developer which would have enabled continued support from the city of LA, who had championed us for 10 years prior, but nothing panned out (although there was one very exciting attempt at the underground subway terminal),” Koga said. “The city of Glendale had been seeking to develop its downtown cultural corridor and both sides saw MONA in Glendale as a match.”
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.
The Museum of Neon Art (216 South Brand Boulevard, Glendale, Los Angeles) opens Saturday, February 6, 7–10pm.