Tuesday, November 30, 2004

“I should taste bitterness while I’m young.” 

This is a quotation from a Chinese worker in a Mattel contractor toy factory in Guangzhou. (from Sweat, Fear and Resignation Amid All the Toys, Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2004). Being prone to magical thinking, I found it interesting that a.) the article appeared on my brother’s 50th birthday, b.) that my brother used to work for Mattel, and c.) that my brother is in China for a visit. (We magical thinkers like to string together unrelated events and see deeper meaning…)

Manufacturing - the dark side of toys…as if the marketing of toys wasn’t dark enough. Reading this article by Abigail Goldman I was torn as to what to think about this world that LATDA hopes to explore and celebrate. As with politics, religion, and all social ethics, the world is in a dizzying stage of chaos. Since one of LATDA’s precepts is that toys reflect the world at large, I guess it is no surprise that the toy industry partakes in the ugliness of the world even as it proposes to provide enjoyment and mental nourishment for our most vulnerable and valuable members of society.

Li Xiao Hong is 20 years old and works on an assembly line for 5½, ten-hour days a week at $65 a month. Did she ever play with toys when she was a child? Is she able to look at toys without a feeling of profound exhaustion? Will she have children and buy toys for them?

The article says that sincere attempts are being made to reform the manufacturing process in the many third world countries that are providing the largest toy companies with their products. Mattel has established ‘humane campuses’ in China and Indonesia, but they account for a fraction of the world’s toy manufacturing facilities. And that’s only Mattel. Poor ventilation, toxic environments, and grueling work shifts are the norm in many other factories.

Every time I stop and admire a finely painted plastic toy or marvel at the complex and fine construction of a plush toy priced at a mere $4.95 or less, my guilt meter is triggered. Words like ‘slavery’, ‘political prisoners’, and ‘sweatshops’ bombard my mind and stay my hand from my credit card. But as pointed out in the article, if the manufacturer goes out of business, the workers lose their jobs – or conditions become even more intolerable as the race for a better bottom line demands more hours from less workers.

So what about ‘sustainable’ toy manufacturing? Or ‘slow toys’? What if we actually valued their products and paid more for them so the people who made them could be paid more? One might own fewer toys, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

There have always been toy makers who work steadily at their craft and make an actual living pursuing that which they love. Of course some occasionally have to supplement their income with other jobs – even Geppetto had to make clocks on the side.

There is a wonderful book called “Goldie the Dollmaker” by M.B.Goffstein (regretfully out-of-print) that evokes a wildly un-industrial revolution attitude towards toy manufacturing. It takes Goldie three months to produce 18 of her simple wooden dolls. (Li Xiao Hong can assemble a Mini Touch ‘n Crawl doll in 21 seconds.) Goldie trades three months worth of dolls for a beautiful Chinese lamp and her friend calls her crazy. She falls asleep fretting over her foolishness and plans to return the impractical lamp in the morning. The spirit of the unknown artisan who made the lamp visits her in a dream. He tells her that he made the lamp for her, because she ‘understands’. The implication is that Goldie understands its beauty because she understands the love or passion that was put into it, just as she puts her love into her dolls to be recognized and released by the right recipient.

How much of yourself can you put into something that you make in 21 seconds? Why is it necessary to make something in 21 seconds except to meet manufacturing quotas? I don’t think that it is unheard of for people who make toys on an assembly line to feel proud of their work. But it is if you are being abused in other ways.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Not only love can break your heart 

Another Chapter 11 in the toy world was announced as Lionel filed for bankruptcy after losing a court ruling for allegedly ‘misappropriating’ designs from a competitor. This is the second time the company has filed for bankruptcy – the first occurring in 1991 when it was rescued by iconic rocker, Neil Young.

Now somewhere in the back of my head I filed this information about Neil Young owning a stake in Lionel Trains, thinking that this would be good material for LATDA. Being somewhat hampered by my stereotypical gender inclinations, I figured we’d wait until someone with true train passion and expertise came along to frame an exceptional and provocative train exhibition.

What I didn’t follow over the years is how much Neil Young has put into Lionel – he has been busy inventing and shaping product development. No dilettante ownership here. My outdated perception was that he had invested in Lionel because of the connection it gave him with his two young sons. I had no idea that he was a serious train hobbyist who has helped develop wireless controllers that would enable his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, to operate complex train systems that don’t rely on fine motor skills.

Young is also responsible for a limited edition train set based on his music. The Greendale Train,with its devil chasing a political activist around one of the cars, has stirred up some of Young’s fellow hobbyists. Apparently politics and trains shouldn’t mix company according to the blogs. The Greendale Train sounds good fun to me and quite refreshing – if LATDA had the budget, we would definitely invest in Greendale and help out Lionel.

One day I found myself in a train store in West LA. I think I was looking for the stuff to make the little trees you see on train layouts. Eavesdropping on a conversation, I heard a man talk about a train layout he had been working on. He was a screenwriter (what else in L.A.?) trying to weather out the writers’ strike in the 80’s. His wife had suggested that he find a hobby to keep busy. He was in the process of creating a layout inside of a glass-topped coffee table. The landscape was based on scenes from a plague-ridden Europe, littered with piles of diseased corpses and feasting carrion. I couldn’t imagine what kind of trains he had running through his 14th century creation, but I hope it was Lionel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Jocko got tagged! 

Last Thursday we got a call from MONA to say that taggers vandalized our window. Fortunately the windows were treated with special anti-graffiti coating and Jocko will be cleaned up shortly. Guess we are at least attracting attention.

By the way, our t-shirt site is working and Jocko is waiting to come into your homes!

Saturday, November 13, 2004

JOCKO T-shirts available online...almost 

We finally have something for you to buy in our museum store! A very cool Jocko t-shirt is available... or sort of. We posted it for sale last week and sold two before Paypal and our server conspired to send people on a wild web chase. But we are working out the bugs and beg you to be patient. Believe me, we want to sell these shirts!

One thing you should know, if you have tried to become members and got fed up with the Paypal system, Paypal has changed their policy and if you want to just get on with it and buy something without becoming a member of Paypal, you can! It is as easy as buying from any other secure site and it enables us to sell on our web site without having to expend capital to become a full-fledged capitalist organization (meaning many monthly fees and sales minimums).

Not to bore you, but I recently attended a Museum Store Association (MSA) meeting where they discussed the importance of the museum store as a revenue stream for funding museum programming (not to mention paying salaries and the electric bill), and there was a presentation about UBIT (unrelated business income tax) laws. For non-profit institutions, income from museum store enterprises are non-taxable by the IRS, EXCEPT for certain types of merchandise. In the past, logo merchandise like t-shirts, shot glasses, mouse pads and mugs were considered taxable since they didn't relate directly to the institution's mission statement or permanent collection. But now the IRS has amended this to say that if the item serves as a viable marketing tool , i.e. a 'walking billboard' for the organization, that it could be considered as tax exempt.

Our t-shirts not only serve as billboards, but could even be considered 'amusements' since they are so entertaining! The web site address and the proper pronunciation of the acronym "LATDA", appear clearly on the shirt (along with an attractive portrait of our mascot). They are also verrry comfortable. And when you buy one, you are saying that you support us and want to see us produce more exhibitions!

Hey, if you don't want to buy online, send us a check (LATDA Museum, P.O.Box 41011, Los Angeles, CA 90041) and we will send you your shirt via priority mail. Just check out the prices ($18 for members; $20 for non-members; $5.00 for shipping and handling) and make out your check accordingly. If you sign up as a Shiny Red Fire Truck member, we will send you a shirt for free! (Just let us know what size)

Remember, the holidays are coming up and these shirts would make great gifts! Give a gift that supports a good cause!

Monday, November 08, 2004

Dr. Toy and WIT 

Fulfilled a longtime aspiration this evening to meet Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, aka Dr. Toy . Ever since hearing that she had a toy museum in San Francisco, I have wanted to pick her brain and also ask her why she closed her museum after only three years. That I never saw nor heard of her museum while it was in existence from 1986-1989 was no mystery - I was a new bewildered mother and didn't get out much for the first few years. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was the reason Dr. Toy's museum was closed.

Dr. Toy was a speaker at the Women in Toys meeting this evening. Her topic was Smart Play, Smart Toys. I felt like a student trying to suck up to a respected teacher because every time she asked a question like who has heard of ___? Or how many of you have ever attended a Toy Fair? My hand kept shooting up like a rabid third-grader. When she opened her Power Point presentation with the statement, "A toy is a child's first experience of art", I sat up at attention. It was all I could do to not stand up and testify and try and start a dialogue.

For the most part what I heard was a reinforcement of the mission and vision of LATDA. But there were times I wanted her to go farther. That toys can teach motor and cognitive skills is undeniable. But I think that we learn desire and love from our first toys too. Both 'bad' love (covetousness and unbridled desire) and 'good' love (protective and nostalgic). We also learn how to be delighted and astonished through our experience with toys. Perhaps the latter states of emotion are fleeting and temporal, but love and desire are substantial and complex.

The other topic I longed to broach was the idea that toys are not just for children. That what we consider as positive developmental tools for children are also reflected in toys that are being created by adults, for adults. And I'm not talking about marital aids...

There is a rapidly growing movement of artists creating limited editions of vinyl toys aimed solely at collectors who are old enough to have disposable income. These collectors fall somewhere in between art collector/connoisseurs and toy-mint-in-box collectors. My personal opinion is that what makes these collectors different is that they maintain the same innocent sensibility as a kid who simply WANTS a particular toy. This is fodder for a future LATDA exhibition...

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