Special Report: Niche Museums Call Los Angeles Home

Special Report: Niche Museums Call Los Angeles Home
Connor Sehnert, event manager at the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys. (Photo by David Sprague)

Los Angeles, like any respectable metropolitan area, is home to many prestige museums, those collecting and celebrating history, fine arts and the sciences.

The lively and iconoclast character of the region and its history also make plenty of room for the oddball, quirky or niche museum – those seeking an audience of locals and tourists alike, in search of a true L.A. experience or perhaps in rejection of a hifalutin atmosphere. Of these there are many, a plethora of educational nonprofits or entertainment bazaars. And they’re all one-of-a-kind.

“We have one of the most diversified cultural landscapes and museum communities in the world. It’s part of what makes Los Angeles so special,” said Corrie Siegel, executive director of the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale. “There’s so much to explore, knowledge to be gleaned and experiences to be had here. L.A is full of really smart, curious people and people interested in going beyond the surface.”

In this way, the museum is often a window into a past time or place. While some of these locales cover a world of topics, many stay right here in L.A. Take, for example, the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, which seeks to capture and preserve all things San Fernando Valley.

“No one was trying to preserve Valley history 22 years ago,” said founder Tommy Gelinas. “It didn’t exist. It was something that I feel was needed, to bring some pride. The Valley has so much rich history, much of it gone. It’s something that I think put a lot of pride back.”

Origin stories

Founded in 1981, the Museum of Neon Art was the brainchild of two founders – artist Lili Lackich and high school student Richard Jenkins – who developed their own interests in what was then considered a somewhat unsavory medium.

“Not many museums can claim they were started by a high school student,” Siegel said. “In some ways, that creates an interesting financial model because most museums are formed by wealthy patrons, municipalities or governments, but we are all just founded out of love, some crazy kids and artists who saw this really special medium was disappearing from the landscape.”

Recognizable by its unique vibrating light, charming buzz and cursive shapes, neon light was once, in the eyes of many, a necessary association of seedy venues, hotels and storefronts. Its colorful and kinetic illumination stood in contrast to the warm monotone of streetlamps. Cities started banning new installations and finding other ways to remove existing setups.

However, Siegel said, there was also a blossoming movement that saw much more in the medium.

“Right at the time it was being legislated against was also when it was picking up in the power it had to make statements about identity, community and all of these interesting things, so artists started taking it up,” she said.

The Museum of Neon Art in Glendale makes for a distinctive presence along Brand Boulevard.

L.A. makes a good home for this museum, Siegel noted, because it houses one of the largest stocks of existing public neon lighting in the nation. And for this reason, she added, the museum does not actively go out and acquire these artifacts; they are instead fueled by art exhibits and donations.

“We have a vested interest in keeping L.A., Southern California and the world full of neon, so we don’t want to pay a business to take down their neon,” Siegel added.

You’ll also find neon signage in the Valley Relics Museum, which has amassed a large collection of signature Valley iconography and products. This includes such icons as the sign for the former Palomino Club in North Hollywood and a plethora of BMX bikes, paying homage to the birthplace of the sport.

Gelinas began collecting and preserving the history of his home region 22 years, initially showcasing his finds on Myspace and then Facebook. That was as far as he initially planned to take it, he admitted.

“It was really an interesting deal, having that blog and website and starting early on with social media,” Gelinas said. “It was one of those things where I didn’t really plan for it to be a brick-and-mortar museum. It was more that my childhood was disappearing, and they were tearing down, say, that one building, so I wanted to get that door or that booth or something.”

Social media helped fuel a crowdsourcing effort to get artifacts into Gelinas’ hands, and pretty soon he had more than he knew what to do with. Thus, the original museum was opened in Chatsworth in 2013; it relocated in 2018, moving into two hangars at Van Nuys Airport.

Building an audience and dealing with the pandemic

Siegel took the reins at the Museum of Neon Art about a month before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold and forced virtually all such institutions to close their doors to visitors.

“That could very well have been the end of MONA,” she recalled, using the common acronym for the museum. “We had three months of rent in our bank account, we couldn’t pay our staff and we had no way of making money. We had to completely reinvent the way we run the museum.

“In many ways,” Siegel added, “it was an opportunity for us.”

Her team took to social media, creating educational videos and mapping out neighborhood tours – where those interested could explore L.A.’s public neon offerings. In building a new audience of neon enthusiasts, Siegel said the museum’s mission of promoting the conservation of the medium was advanced.

What followed was what Siegel called the “Bernie Sanders of museums,” referencing the onetime presidential candidate’s campaign coffers filled mostly by small donations.

“We have very few well-monied patrons, but we have a huge community who knows it’s up to the collective to make sure these special jewels in Los Angeles are saved,” Siegel said.

Similarly, the folks at the International Printing Museum in Carson saw the pandemic as an opportunity. As an organization that thrives on educational tours and theatrical interactive demonstrations, co-founder and curator Mark Barbour said the museum began to expand its footprint when it closed doors. It took over another building tenant’s space and converted it into a teaching lab.

The museum also ramped up its equipment leasing activities. Being in possession of such a comprehensive collection of authentic printing presses and equipment means they can provide when film and TV studios come calling for period-appropriate set pieces; they made $250,000 alone by lending equipment to HBO’s series “The Gilded Age.”

“If you see a printing press in the movies, it probably came from our collection,” Barbour noted.

With tours and school visits back in the rotation, Barbour said the museum is back in its main wheelhouse, with costumed actors portraying such figures as Benjamin Franklin as they guide students in printing out U.S. Constitutions on the appropriate machine – much more fun than simply looking at a static exhibit.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to make that happen and you do that by thinking of fun programming and a way to engage the audiences,” he said. “I’m passionate about making sure the people have that level of an experience every day, where they say ‘Wow’ when they leave the building.”

Read more about some of L.A.’s quirky museums:

Valley Relics Museum

International Printing Museum

The Bunny Museum

Museum of Jurassic Technology

Museum of Neon Art

The Cold War Museum

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