A lion-duckling-caterpillar chimera greeted people with a giant brown paw at the Shoshanna Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. Four colorful, smiley-faced creatures waved at passersby outside the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach.
Across America strange paper-mache and felt ambassadors are part of SWC art instructor Brian Dick’s ambitious venture, Nationwide Museum Mascot Project (NWMMP). Co-founded by Dick and his wife Christen Sperry-Garcia, NWMMP consists of the couple standing outside participating art museums in colorfully gonzo costumes, enticing curious bystanders through the doors. They are for museums what the San Diego Chicken and Philly Phanatic are for baseball.
“We offered it as a free service,” Dick said. “We engage with passersby with handshakes, high fives, hugs, pro-museum sign picketing. We pass out buttons and stickers and spread the word about the museums through social media.”
Sperry-Garcia said Dick started the project based on a lark.
“Brian thought it would be funny to make mascots that promote museums the way they promote sports teams,” she said.
Their first official gig, after a performance at the Arts on Adams festival at Adams Avenue in 2005, was for the San Diego Museum of Art in 2008.
Since then they have staked out highly acclaimed museums such as Le Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Recently the pair embarked on a tour of the art museums of Los Angeles and Latin America, titled “The LA-LA Tour.”
For two months the intrepid trekkers spent the South American winter inside smiling felt and cotton characters. They visited 13 museums, including the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires in Argentina and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá, Colombia.
The scope of such an undertaking meant that Dick and Sperry-Garcia needed some help.
Graham Husted, a former Cypress College arts student, joined them.
“I was first introduced to the Nationwide Museum Mascot Project when finishing school in 2011,” he said. “Our class was assigned a project based on their work and we had to construct our own mascots using only items we had at home.”
After visiting Dick’s studio, Husted was asked to help with the LA-LA Tour, where he took photos of the spectacle and sometimes posed as a mascot.
“What really appealed to me was the ability to view an onlooker’s reaction from within a piece of art,” Husted said. “It made me think: What has the Mona Lisa seen?”
While the nomadic artists said their mascots have been a hit with the public, not every museum welcomed them.
“Although it does operate on the level of a prank, it is more complex than that,” Dick said. “We do actually promote them. Museums like to be in control of their own branding. They believe that we challenge that.”
Dick and Sperry-Garcia’s goal, they insist, is to attract those who think that museums hold nothing more than pretentious art and boring fossils. It
also serves to broaden the museum’s clientele and generate more revenue.
“Museums are not often accessible to everyone,” Sperry-Garcia said.
Only one thing makes this unconventional married couple happier than to see a child smiling and high-fiving their creations – it is to see a child enter a museum.