Over the past weekend, I was fortunate enough to work side by side with the members of the Nationwide Museum Mascot Project (NWMMP). NWMMP is a collaborative organized by two people. Brian and Christen, a married couple from the San Diego region, came up with this idea of a mascot for art museum and galleries. This notion of the mascot was based off of a sports team’s mascots. However, these mascots are very different in appearance. Instead of replicating a certain animal with clean, neat colors and materials, the NWMMP reaches out to thrift shops and other local stores in the museum’s area to quickly assemble a costume that would “break up the human form”, as they put it.
The Bucknell Art Galleries, specifically the Downtown Art Gallery, was the first University gallery they have ever promoted. As one of the interns for the Bucknell Art Gallery, I had the chance to interview both to get an inside scope on their creative process.
Q: How did this collaborative come about?
A: In 2005, Brian and I were invited to participate in a performance night in San Diego called “Art on Adams.” Brian proposed to mascot the event. We spent the day in his yard each making a costume with boxes, plants and whatever else we found. That evening, we waltzed down Adams Avenue in our clumsy costumes waving and passing out autographed photocopied photos of “Art” and “Arty.” We even did a little mascot dance once we reached the central meeting area. This marked the beginning of our collaboration.
Q: Who inspired the idea and who was the first museum to try it?
A: Not too long after I met Brian in 2002, he expressed that it would be funny to make a mascot for an art museum, in the spirit of a sport’s mascot. The San Diego Museum of Art invited NWMMP in 2008 to be a apart of and mascot “Inside the Wave,” curated by Bettie Sue Hertz, that featured six contemporary San Diego and Tijuana-based artists and collectives. I wanted to make a costume out of a large stuffed animal (like from a carnival). We found a giant teddy bear at Salvation Army. Next, Brian and slit the fur releasing tons of mini styrofoam balls into a giant garbage bag. We then made a few cuts, and I put it on. It needed a hat, so we went to this mercado down the street from Brian’s and found a birthday cake piñata. The costume evolved as the exhibition went on. We even added a side-kick made from a giant piñata star that Brian wore. I think he had to take it off every time we entered the museum because it would not fit through the door!
We would hang out around the museum and galleries surprising and greeting guests. Eventually, we were banned from going into non-contemporary galleries, so as not to confuse visitors. We found some Vietnamese wedding dolls to pass out as mini-mascot swag and also handed out stickers and prints with NWMMP-made museum branding. One day, we decided to hold a promotion and called it “Get Free Corndog with Price of Admission.” We held out a sign in front of the museum entrance desk to attract visitors. There were a number of takers, including a confused visitor who emailed the museum director and asked if the corndogs they received were indeed sanctioned by the museum. They actually weren’t because we neglected to inform the museum that we were going to do that!
Q: How has your collaborative mission evolved over the past 5 years?
A: The mission has remained essentially the same. Although with our “2012 Summer Tour,” we greatly expanded our scope. Recently, we have been asked to show the mascot costumes along with documentation in relational art and collaboration-themed shows.
Q: The mascots are incredibly unique-What process have you all come up with to create the design?
A: We find supplies from thrift shops, people’s closets and things locally sourced from the area of the museum. It is like shopping for groceries. Then, we quickly put something together. Working improvisationally, Brian usually builds it on me while we both discuss design and practicality. One of our goals is to break-up the human form. The costumes are built swiftly and usually onsite.
Q: On your website it hints at the fact that you may just come up to a museum and promote it. Have you really done that? What museum did you first try this with? Were they accepting?
A: Yes, we do sometimes just show up at a museum. Our first was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2009. We sent out a public press release stating that LACMA will get a mascot and informed LACMA personnel including Director Michael Govan. Someone from their press office wrote us and explicitly told us not to come, and that LACMA has worked hard to establish a specific branding. We had several heated but cordial emails back and forth. We showed up anyways to mascot the perimeter of the museum and caught many suspicious looks from guards. We picketed the museum with a “Love LACMA” sign and took some great photos with museum fans. We came back later during the California Biennial at Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) as the OCMAscot to promote the show at LACMA. We handed out buttons and stickers to guests and guards.
Q: Will you ever return to museums you have already promoted?
A: Yes, we do return, invited or not. For example, we mascotted the Orange County Museum of Art from 2010-11 and returned last summer as a part of our “2012 Summer Tour” during family day for a “Mascot Piñata Demolition” event.
Q: In what ways do you all take in account of the audience that typically comes to the museum? For example: The Samek Art Gallery is typically catered for the student body. Will the mascot reflect this or for a more family oriented audience?
A: We don’t build the mascot for any particular audience. It is what it is. Our goal is to not be fussy and build it with the material we have collected. Reactions vary widely and are very interesting to us.
Q: How do most people react to the mascot- what is the typical first reaction to these mascots?
A: We have encountered all sorts of reactions from total awe, confusion, dismay, a smile, disgust, double takes, to NO reaction at all.