Every July, thousands of comic book and pop culture fans migrate to San Diego for Comic-Con International. The annual convention not only draws A-list celebrities such as Chris Evans and Gal Gadot but also millions of tourism dollars for the city. So wouldn’t it be great to have Comic-Con more than four — or counting preview night, five — days a year? Soon that dream will become a reality with the Comic-Con Museum officially in the works at Balboa Park — and The Times has a first look at what fans can expect from the new venue.
In a new promotional video unveiled Wednesday, hopeful museum-goers can get a first look inside the museum space, which promises to be a “pop culture community hub and a museum the fans deserve.”
The new video and artist rendering of the museum’s entrance, seen below, coincides with the start of 2018 Comic-Con International on Wednesday evening. Executive director Adam Smith and the museum’s team will host a booth on the exhibition floor — #1714 — throughout the convention and will host a panel (at noon in room 29AB Sunday) where attendees can get more details about the project. Those interested can sign up to get regular updates here.
First announced in March 2017, the 68,000-square foot museum and exhibit space replaces the San Diego Hall of Champions. Although there is not yet a proposed opening date for the museum, Smith and his small group have already surveyed longtime attendees and Comic-Con influencers on what they’d like to see in such a place in concert with Comic-Con’s “for the fans” mentality. So far, the group has received more than 6,000 responses.
Ahead of Sunday’s panel, The Times talked to Smith about the next steps for the museum, how much fan involvement there will be in the planning stage and his dream exhibits for the space.
You’ve probably just gotten the ball rolling, so first question is about the official name for the venue: Comic-Con Museum?
Yes, we recently settled on Comic-Con Museum as the official name of the project. But don’t imagine a stagnant museum full of dusty old artifacts … like Comic-Con the event, this will be an extremely lively and vibrant place.
What prompted you to take on the somewhat daunting task of helping create this Comic-Con Museum?
The instant gut feeling was “that would be a really cool job!” Comic-Con is part of the zeitgeist, the spirit of our time, and celebrates a type of culture I’ve been attracted to my whole life. I also love working with passionate, engaged fans — something Comic-Con has in abundance. And it’s a hugely content-rich environment. There are almost limitless opportunities for great exhibits, events and programs.
Deeper into the process, I liked what I saw in the culture of Comic-Con International, the nonprofit organization that runs the event. I think a lot of Comic-Con’s success over the last 48 years is rooted in a set of welcoming, inclusive, servant-leadership values that I feel very comfortable with.
I was born and raised in Great Britain, and one of the big reasons I left my homeland was an attempt to escape the idea that certain kinds of art and culture have innately “higher" qualities than others. Popular culture does not equate to lowbrow culture; much of the artistic, aesthetic and intellectual output of the Comic-Con universe is of the very highest quality.
But yes, this is a daunting task. The project is more than simply opening a visitor attraction; it’s a strategic step that makes Comic-Con a year-round educational organization. There is no point trying to manage expectations because everyone already expects it to be amazing. We have an extremely diverse and passionate audience, but the challenge of pleasing everyone is something to take energy from. We want to create a museum that hardcore fans will love but that also works for the more casual visitor, family or schoolteacher with their class.
With the space secured, what are the first few things on your to-do list?
The one thing we know for certain about this project is where it will be — we have a long-term lease on a 68,000 square foot building in Balboa Park. I want to thank the city of San Diego and Mayor Kevin Faulconer for providing the space. In the museum world, your location can make you or break you, and being located right in the cultural heart of San Diego is a huge bonus.
In my first few months, I’ve been doing a lot of listening and learning, meeting key people in the worlds of San Diego and Comic-Con. We have been working on a creative vision and business plan for the museum, setting budgets and starting a capital campaign to fund the project. Comic-Con is making a significant financial contribution to the overall cost, but additional funds will be needed to get the doors open. This is why I can’t give an opening date for the museum just yet; we won’t know that until we have completed the fundraising campaign.
Will fans get a say in what’s to be presented in the museum? Even if it’s just fan donations?
Fan involvement will be huge, and we’re thinking quite radically about this. In the traditional model of a museum, expert curators build collections, decide what’s important and present it to the visiting public. I don’t have a problem with that model, but it’s not quite where we are headed. The fans of Comic-Con already have as much knowledge as any curator we could hire, and they own collections it would take decades to assemble. They’re creative and passionate, too, so why not invite right them into the heart of the process?
This is important enough to describe as a “key philosophical underpinning” of the project, and it will be one of the things that differentiates us. In many ways, all I’m describing here is what Comic-Con has already been doing for half a century. We are just applying it in the form of a year-round museum.
We began by sending a survey to a random selection of 24,000 Comic-Con attendees to solicit their ideas, and received an amazing response. We are treating Comic-Con 2018 as a large-scale focus group exercise. Fans are invited to visit our booth, #1714, on the main exhibit floor to participate in an exercise to gather information and feedback about the museum.
Ultimately, we want to have a system where fans can help us make actual, meaningful decisions through online voting. I would love to see future exhibits in the Comic-Con Museum that came directly from fan submitted ideas.
Do you know if the space will also be used as another venue for programming/screenings? And is there yet anything special planned for Comic-Con attendees?
It’s a little early to say exactly how the space will ultimately be used during Comic-Con, but I’m sure there will be lots going on, and we’ll make a shuttle bus connection between Balboa Park and the Convention Center.
For eleven years I ran an aviation museum in Oshkosh, Wis., which was an outgrowth of the world’s largest air show with 700,000 attendees. Our busiest time of the year was actually in the days ahead of the big convention. In other words, the fans extended their visit to take in the museum, rather than take away from their convention time. I predict something similar will happen here: For many, the existence of the Comic-Con Museum will effectively be an extension to the whole event.
Our plan includes a couple of state-of-the-art theaters that will be used all year round for the kinds of panels, previews, screenings, etc., that are so popular at Comic-Con. It’s such a natural thing to do. I like what the Paley Center has been doing up there in L.A. — they do great programming in their theater but are also engaging a much larger audience via web stream. Our goal is that members all around the world will see the Comic-Con Museum as a year-round home for their passion. Live streaming will help keep the members engaged wherever in the world they live.
In your vision, what will the museum look like — and what do you hope will be exhibiting?
We are still designing it, but I can give you a conceptual sketch.
I have been jokingly referring to this project as a "Cathedral of Popular Culture Awe and Wonder,” but that seriously describes the feeling we want people to have when they walk through the doors. The overall feel of the place should be like walking into a permanent, 365-days-a-year, Comic-Con. Anything you might see or do at Comic-Con, expect to see or do it here.
We are looking to give people a feeling of constant change and a reason to come back time and again. This also means that, over time, we can highlight all the dimensions and corners of popular culture. So we plan to create exhibits that will tour to other venues and also bring in high quality exhibits from the international touring circuit. I see us having artists-in-residence, visiting celebrities, screenings, panels, contests, creative classes and workshops. It’s going to be a vibrant, ever-changing place.
That being said, there will be some cool permanent exhibits too, and our designers are working on ideas that are highly interactive and experience-driven and give visitors the opportunity not just to enjoy the creative work of others but to create something themselves.
Although the scope of the museum will cover the entire creative universe of Comic-Con, including film, TV, animation, toys, video games, cosplay and so on, there will be a special place for comics and comic art. Comics are not just in our name; they are woven into the very DNA of the organization.
Spaces for retail, food and drink are included in most museum projects, but they’re particularly important for us. We want to have a themed dining experience and are planning nontraditional opening hours. Most museums open during the daytime and occasionally open in the evening for special events and programs. We are planning to stay open until midnight, every single day. This allows us to run a regular family-style museum in the daytime and switch to more adult-oriented programming in the evening.
Last but not least, one of the three floors in our building will be dedicated to education programming with high-tech studios and art classrooms. Both kids and adults will be able to learn skills in areas such as comic art, storytelling, animation, filmmaking, costuming and game design.