They say that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, which is why many might think a museum dedicated to neon signs is a bit unusual. However, neon signs have played a key role in the history of America, offering the iconic symbol associated with the bars, restaurants, diners and other businesses of both small towns and big city U.S.A. The Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, CA, is an homage to the endless possibilities the country offers, allowing the average person the opportunity to pave their own path to success. Here is how the Neon Museum is keeping neon signs alive.
MONA was founded as a non-profit art museum in 1981, by artists Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins. The museum is home to dozens of vintage neon signs whose glow and quirky designs testament to a bygone era in American history. From bowling alleys to barbecue and motels to cocktails, neon signs have called out to locals and travellers alike, offering the promise of fun, food, and a place to do business across the U.S. The museum helps remind people of the colourful history of the past companies that helped build the America everyone knows today. The signs represent some of the most iconic places in America and some not-so-famous enterprises. Although the museum struggled to find a permanent home for a few decades, it now sits as a permanent fixture at the southern end of the Arts and Entertainment Corridor. It fosters awareness of historic neon signage and even runs a popular bus tour, the Neon CruiseTM, where tourists can view the remaining neon signs of LA.
No doubt nostalgia plays an important role at MONA, where the familiar glow is a reminder of simpler times. Because historically, the neon signs were used to attract passing traffic, some of the signs are so massive they required a crane for installation. The museum’s neon demands so much electricity they had to install their own mini power plant. The facility draws four times the energy than that of an American home. The museum continues to grow thanks to the resourcefulness of the staff who have dumpster dived and even dodged wrecking balls to save signs from an unceremonial death.
Many of the installments suffered extensive damage at the hands of time and required intricate repairs. Dealing with deteriorated wiring, replacing broken bulbs and removing and refinishing peeling paint are just some of the steps needed to bring these Americana relics back to their original glory. The process can be explored at the museum’s education labs, where their team of skilled neon craftspeople fabricate and process the neon tubes in hands-on classes. Visitors can see how it’s done and learn more about this dying art form. An immersive class allows students to experience the entire process from glass to glow and bring home their own neon creation.
The museum also features temporary installations such as the “Hats Off to Hollywood” exhibit. This collection featured signs found throughout LA, including the Brown Derby restaurant sign, Chris ‘n Pitts Bar-B-Q and an animated sign featuring a bricklayer at work. Visitors can imagine LA in all its glory when the streets and roofs were once aglow with the not-so-subtle brilliance of competing neon ads.
Throughout the 40s and 50s, neon was considered the sign of the elite, an expensive frill for a high-class business. However, by the 1970s, the tired signs became more of a tacky fixture that modern companies were happy to take down. The museum staff have their work cut out for them, trying to find neon signs worth investing in restorations. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to restore a sign. As a result, they created three-step criteria when choosing signs to feature in their museum. First, the sign must look good. Second, it must be technically superior with intricate fabrication, and third, it must have cultural significance. The criteria ensure the museum is exciting to visit and not just a massive room filled with “Open” or “Hot Coffee” signs.
An unexpected challenge the museum faces is stopping people from taking dangerous selfies. While they boast of losing a single bulb in their restoration process, visitors cause a hazard by rallying to get an image with iconic signs. Many don’t realize how delicate and fragile the neon tubing is when they touch and lean in to get the best angle. The museum is looking for new ways to discourage people from getting too close and personal with their displays while still making it a welcoming place.
The signs express creativity that the museum wishes to protect and preserve. Although the artists of the signs remain anonymous, their art will be forever honoured in a spot in their museum. It speaks to the constant changes of America and the many businesses that have grown, prospered, and died in a country constantly reinventing itself. However, the one constant is the opportunity of commerce and the ability for people to make their own way. Neon remains alive, even though new technology has taken over the main streets and attractions in major cities worldwide. Neon artists continue to emerge, providing work the museum can feature at their constantly evolving exhibits.