By Erin Marton
Pittsburgh is home to many museums, but nestled (appropriately) into the Cultural District of Downtown Pittsburgh, is a museum like no other. ToonSeum showcases cartoon and comic book art, and if its growing fan base is any indication, they are clearly onto something. Their most recent exhibit “Superheroes, Icons and Origins” opened to packed crowds and rave reviews.
ToonSeum Executive Director Joe Wos has a big hand in the tremendous success the attraction has seen. A tireless worker and advocate for the cartoon arts, Joe’s job extends well beyond curating the Museum’s various exhibits. He regularly organizes Movie Screenings, Beer Tastings and Drawing Lessons (a huge favorite with ToonSeum fans), Launch Parties, Lectures, and more.
The ToonSeum annual fundraiser “KABLAM!”, is a Cultural District favorite, and attracts legions of fans not only thanks to the draw of VIP Guests and unique Silent Auction Items, but also due to the fact that Joe knows how to throw a party! Last year’s event was one of Pittsburgh’s most popular fundraisers, and this year’s seems to have some new surprises in store for us.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Joe to learn more about the ToonSeum, and the future of the popular Pittsburgh attraction.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Joe Wos: I began my career as a cartoonist and storyteller. I illustrate stories as I tell them. It is sort of like watching a picture book be created live. I’ve had the great pleasure of performing nationwide for the past 25 years. It’s hard to believe but over a half million kids have seen my show! I now have parents who have seen my show when they were kids.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of ToonSeum.
JW: In my travels I was invited to be the first resident cartoonist of the Charles M. Schulz Museum nine years ago. During that visit I saw the museum as well as the cartoon art museum in San Francisco. A cartoon light bulb went off in my head. I had watched as the children’s museum, pop art, modern art museums and more had risen and realized that cartoons were one of the world’s most popular art forms. I knew this would be the next museum movement. I put together a great board of directors, organized the non-profit and we opened the ToonSeum.
CBSPittsburgh.com: What is the next ToonSeum exhibit?
JW: This September we open a very exciting exhibit, Overture: Behind the Scenes of Looney Tunes. It’s amazing to see the art and creativity that goes into these iconic characters. The exhibit features over 50 pieces of original art. These are true pop icons, Bugs Bunny, Taz, Tweety, and more. We have grown up with them, our children grow up with them. That’s one of the things that sets the ToonSeum apart, we are a museum you never outgrow!
CBSPittsburgh.com: What are some of your favorite ToonSeum memories?
JW: In the short time we have been around I’ve had some amazing things happen. Anne Hathaway (soon to be Catwoman) visited on our opening week and talked about 80s cartoons for at least a half hour! We had one gentleman who started crying as he viewed a piece of early superhero comic art. When we asked him if he was okay, he responded “My mom threw away all my comics” He was about 70! We have had so many great guests visit too, legends like Caroll Spinney (Big Bird) to legendary cartoonists like Mike Peters (Mother Goose and Grimm) and so many more.
CBSPittsburgh.com: What’s happening in the near future at ToonSeum?
JW: We are ready to grow again! Look for the ToonSeum to add more space, we are not sure how just yet but superheroes have a way of making these things happen! We just have so many great exhibits and so much we could be showing off. But we also need more space for our programs, we do screenings, lectures, workshops, even wine tastings and cartooning!
CBSPittsburgh.com: Tell us about the ToonSeum Staff.
JW: We are mostly volunteer, including myself right now. But that was important I knew I wouldn’t take a salary until the ToonSeum really was firmly established and sustainable. We have one paid staff member, John Mattie, our gallery manager and even he volunteered for over a year before taking the position! This is our passion. We are a fan-based museum. That’s a unique thing. How many museums can truly say they have real fans who are dedicated with the same passion as movie fans, comic fans, gaming fans, that’s are base, and that’s our staff. We are all geeks and we love it!
CBSPittsburgh.com: Are any plans in motion yet for this year’s “KABLAM!”?
JW: Yes plans are in motion. We are working on our special guest for this year and if it all goes through I can only say he will appeal to everyone from little kids to college kids and more. We have to work hard to top last year but we are up for it!
CBSPittsburgh.com: How can someone help out the ToonSeum?
JW: We are a non-profit so every dime means a lot to us! But you can also help by donating comics, volunteering and more. The ToonSeum is dedicated to offering free admission to kids under 12, free screenings and more. We want to offer as much as we can for the community but we also have to be a responsible business downtown and raising funds is an ongoing effort.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Why does the ToonSeum call Pittsburgh home?
JW: Pittsburgh is the birthplace of Pop Culture! First Movie Theater, radio, public TV, the Warner Brothers, Andy Warhol, all had starts in Pittsburgh. I think Pittsburgh has the perfect mix of high culture and pop sensibility to appreciate the cartoon and comic arts.
Downtown Pittsburgh’s Cultural District
945 Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222
Hours: Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
They are closed Monday and Tuesday.
Price: $4 Adults and children over 13; Free for children under 12
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In addition to being a proudly serving member of the ToonSeum Board of Directors, Erin Marton is a REALTOR® and the Social Media and Marketing Director for PPM Realty in Pittsburgh, Pa. She is also the author of the ‘Burgh Living Blog, and you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.