December 18, 2023

Celebrating and Preserving a Historic Art Form at The Museum of Neon Art

Neon signage has a mesmerizing allure about it: The dazzling, unwavering glow, layered with the intense nostalgia it evokes, gives the viewer an experience that’s hard to replicate with another artistic medium.

That yearning for a bygone era that neon stirs up is rooted in more than 100 years of history. While neon’s popularity has ebbed and flowed through the decades, the artistic process behind the craft has remained constant, passed down through generations.

photo by: Gary van der Steur

The exterior of the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California.

“Most people who bend neon tubes learned from someone, who learned from someone, who learned from someone,” said Corrie Siegel, executive director of the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, California.

MONA aims to preserve this history and increase appreciation for these glowing, buzzing masterpieces. With the help of a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Preservation Funds, the museum is currently developing an audio guide series that will transport listeners back in time as they learn about some of Los Angeles’ most iconic neon signs.

The Cosmic Origins of Neon

Neon has a way of capturing both humanity’s origins and our modern-day materialism. As Siegel put it, neon artisans are “harnessing the same state of matter responsible for life on this Earth, and they’re twisting it into hamburgers and hot dogs and other things.”

“What you are seeing when you look at a neon sign is the same state of matter as our sun and stars: plasma,” Siegel explained.

Dubbed “the fourth state of matter,” plasma is what happens when gases get hot—or electrically charged—resulting in a luminous substance that’s not quite solid, liquid, or gas. It’s what allows the sun to shine and neon signs to glow.

The art form originated in the late 19th century, when its early innovators figured out that filling glass tubes with neon or similar gas types and then electrifying them offers a terrific range of bright color options. And because glass tubing can be heated up and bent into virtually any shape imaginable, neon signage quickly caught on as the favored way for a business to catch a consumer’s eye.

"Neon came to the United States in the mid-1920s,” Siegel said. “It was a marker of advancements in technology and class. If you had a business in the 1920s, you wanted a neon sign.”

The popularity of neon exploded, lighting up major cities across the United States. But during World War II, many of those same cities implemented nighttime blackouts to prevent potential attacks on population hubs, and their neon signs were forced to go dark. Many were never turned back on.

Neon signage in other places, like the Las Vegas Strip, was still flourishing. But through the post-war era, neon started to become associated with “questionable morality,” said Siegel, as people began to identify it with gambling and strip clubs.

As neon’s reputation took a hit, the federal government led efforts to get rid of the signage altogether. While the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 didn’t outright ban neon signage, the law did implement strict regulations around roadside advertising that strongly discouraged it—making the medium all the more appealing to the underground arts scene, Siegel said.

“Artists start realizing this is something that society is rejecting,” she said. “So artists started really experimenting with neon, electric, and kinetic signage and artwork. … Neon started getting this cool edge to it.”

photo by: Museum of Neon Art

A plasma ball depicting Reddy Kilowatt by Larry Albright, a pioneer in the art form's development. His work is displayed at the Museum of Neon Art.

Throughout the ’70s, neon quickly gained clout in the art world. But on the commercial side of things, many businesses were still opting to throw away their old, broken neon signs instead of restoring them. That’s when artist Richard John Jenkins, a high school student at the time, and neon artist Lili Lakich had an idea: What if there was a place where these signs could be admired and remembered for perpetuity, instead of sent to the landfill?

“That’s how the Museum of Neon Art came into existence,” Siegel says.

A Historic Collection

Since 1981, the museum’s collection has only grown. Today, it keeps about 60 works on display in its Glendale galleries, plus more hanging at the Universal CityWalk entertainment complex, as well as Neon Bear Brewery in Pomona, near the museum’s warehouse. The warehouse contains roughly 300 additional signs and artworks that are in MONA’s collection.

One of the largest signs inside MONA’s Glendale gallery is the 37-foot-long neon dragon that once hung outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which is famous for allowing celebrities to cast their hands in the concrete outside the establishment. When the museum took in the piece in 2007, it was in terrible shape, Siegel said. But thanks to a donor-led effort, MONA restored and relit the sign to its original glory, unveiling it in 2018.

photo by: Museum of Neon Art

The neon sign that once hung outside the beloved Grauman's Chinese Theatre is now on display, following a much-needed restoration, at MONA's Glendale gallery.

The museum also boasts work from luminaries in the field like Michael Hayden, the artist behind the Sky’s the Limit piece that hangs from the ceiling in the Chicago O’Hare International Airport United Terminal.

In addition to the pieces on permanent display, the museum’s rotating exhibitions typically include both contemporary work, often featuring a solo artist, and thematic exhibitions “that tell different stories about Southern California,” Siegel said. MONA’s latest exhibition, called Light in the Dark: Queer Narratives in Neon, showcases the prominent role that LGBTQ+ neon artists have played throughout history, and will be on display through March 2024.

“We always show artists that are innovating on contemporary neon, electric, or kinetic artwork, because it is due to the artists that MONA exists and that we can collectively envision a brighter future,” said Siegel. “We always have contemporary art placed with historic signage and technology.”

photo by: Museum of Neon Art

Historic neon signage on display at MONA's Glendale gallery.

Connecting with the Community

MONA’s commitment to preserving historic neon artwork extends beyond the walls of its Glendale gallery. The museum has advocated for and helped to relight a number of historic neon signs within the Los Angeles community, Siegel said, even when these signs remain in place and in private hands.

“MONA does a lot of public outreach for signs, but it's not in the interest of entering the signs into our collection, just seeing more history glowing in the city,” she says.

And with the museum’s forthcoming Community Beacons audio guide set to launch early next year, neon enthusiasts will have the opportunity to learn the history behind signage that’s still in place throughout Los Angeles. The project will highlight five historic neon signs that still serve as iconic landmarks for Angelenos.

photo by: Connie Conway

The Broadway Hollywood is one of five stops on MONA's Community Beacons audio guide, slated to become available early next year.

“These are all signs that the Museum of Neon Art in some way, shape, or form has had a hand in preserving in place,” says Maya Abee, an educator and researcher at MONA who’s working on the project. “We have some that we have advocated for, written letters for, and then some where we were active in the actual preservation.”

Once the audio guide launches on the Bloomberg Connects app, people will be able to access it from any location, and for free—making it accessible to anyone who wants to learn more about neon’s deep roots in Los Angeles.

“This is in line with a lot of what the museum wants to do, which is send the message that all these signs are art, and they are full of history and full of memories,” Abee says. “We’re highlighting that unseen aspect of the signs.”

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Preservation magazine Assistant Editor Malea Martin.

Malea Martin is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. Outside of work, you can find her scouring antique stores for mid-century furniture and vintage sewing patterns, or exploring new trail runs with her dog. Malea is based on the Central Coast of California.

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