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Diving into the Neon Buzz of Downtown

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Wednesday, March 26, 2008, at 11:46AM
dive in Ed Fuentes

The Swimmer, part of the collection to be on display in the new Old Bank District space.

Through the windows of a 4th Street Gilville outpost, glass tubes filled with neon gas are lit documents to lost commercial venues. Like paintings and sculptures that gain value when the artist dies, a neon sign gains notoriety after the business is gone.

It doesn't take very long to find old neon Downtown, with tube hanging throughout the neighborhood on historic theatres and hotels. In the middle of it all, the Museum of Neon Art is getting set to make its return after being homeless for over a year.

Museum of Neon Art MONA director Kim Koga stands in front of the Crabby Joe's sign.

MONA director Kim Koga works at a makeshift desk covered in scattered notebooks. She's busy getting the front half of a flexible 3,000 to 3,500 square foot space ready. It will be shared by a small gift shop on one side, and the restored sign for Craby Joe’s on the other. The back will be the main exhibition space, with 16-foot high ceilings in recovery. Portable walls will provide hanging space. For the museum's first show they'll have soft drink neon signs from the collection of Mario Pancino, including many that have not been exhibited before.

Samples of MONA’s permanent collection––limited to those that could fit through the front door––are also ready to hang. “There’s so much more in storage and it’s just a matter of getting it into the space," she says, speaking of the Union 76 Ball and the Brown Derby Sign. “We just don’t have room yet.”

hardware The Larchmont Hardware sign, a new part of the MONA collection.

Leaning against the west wall is a new artifact that arrived yesterday: a sign that reads Larchmont Keys Hardware and Paints. Known as The Larchmont Hardware store sign, it arrived slightly damaged and won’t be ready by the April opening. “‘Paints’ will be a green and the ‘Larchmont Hardware” would glow red,” Koga notes.

MONA KNOWS: After Craby Joe’s closed at the end of 2007, MONA took possession of the sign. Koga notes that it was refurbished with an original vendor error that can be seen in the film “Barfly.” According to Koga, a drop of mercury was put into the bottom neon gas tube during a decades old repair. This made the ‘y’ and portions of the “a” and “b” in Craby blue; not the BL55 neon pink seen in the rest of the former skid row bar sign.

Koga confirms that the Rosslyn Hotel’s and Million Dollar Theatre signs are scheduled to be lit for filming March 31 and again April 6-7. Meanwhile, Blair Besten of The Amerland Group reports she has been negotiating with Eco Green Systems to install solar panels that would allow the Rosslyn sign –– now under their ownership –– to be lit constantly. “It’s not in the budget to start right away,” says Besten, yet she states that hopefully in 2009 “we can do a nightly thing and have a lighting ceremony.”

MONA’s new space is a temporary lease on life courtesy of Tom Gilmore, who responded to the museum's artistic commitment. Gilmore gave the museum an eighteen month lease in his Old Bank District, and thinks that MONA will be a great complement for the galleries and nightlife around it. “For certain this will always be Gallery Row, and a new arts district unless other [landlords] screw it up,” he says. The signs create a vibrancy on the street, and that's good for everyone Downtown.

MONA opens its new space at 136 W. 4th street on April 3rd, with an opening reception on April 12th. The museum's website is at


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