Tod Swormstedt’s family has been involved with Signs of the Times, the trade magazine of the American sign industry, since its founding in 1906. After more than 20 years as editor and publisher, he created the American Sign Museum in 1999 and opened it to the public at Essex Studios in Walnut Hills in 2005. It moved to its current location in Camp Washington in 2012.
Cynthia Kearns was named the museum’s director in September, with Swormstedt stepping away from day-to-day responsibilities and adding the title of curator. She joined the staff in 2019 after almost 20 years at the Taft Museum of Art and describes Swormstedt’s new role as spending more time on the road looking at signs instead of sitting in meetings at the 20,000-square-foot facility.
How do you put your stamp on a place that is the life’s work of another person?
Tod’s vision has been so focused on the physical space, collecting signs, and installation in the galleries. I would like to remove barriers to visiting the museum, whether those are financial, linguistic, awareness, or understanding the collection. With that, he’s supportive of new ideas and new programs. From my first day, he has said, “We don’t need any more ideas. Pick one and do it.”
The Taft Museum of Art is a conventional institution, and the Sign Museum is anything but. What do you bring that will apply in a different operation?
Planning and governance framework. While we were forced to close last year due to COVID, the board completed its first strategic plan in almost a decade. We’re using this plan to guide activities for the next three years, making certain everyone is rowing the boat in the same direction.
How do you lure visitors who might not think they have an interest in signs?
There are so many ways to approach a place like this beyond the signs themselves: graphic design, technology, industrial trades, typography, history, pop culture. No one discipline is more important than the other, and each provides a comfortable entry point. And if that doesn’t get them, then TikTok videos.
How do you keep the collection alive, in the sense that you’re able to acquire and display additional work?
Preservation of signs is part of our mission. We would prefer to see a sign live its best life in its own neighborhood, then brought here as a final option. When we do receive new-to-us old signs, though, they’re shared on digital media, added to our online catalog, and displayed in restoration whenever possible.
What are the tasks at the top of your agenda?
The American Sign Museum is still a young institution. Building a strong foundation of best practices, creating strong programming, and engaging our own local communities—Camp Washington, Cincinnati, the arts community—are at the top.
In addition to the museum itself, you’re an integral part of the Camp Washington neighborhood, which is undergoing its own renaissance. What part do you play?
The museum will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in Camp in June, and we are so thankful for the support from our neighbors. Giving back by being an advocate, a resource, a cheerleader, and a collaborator for businesses and residents is important to the museum and a role we hope to embrace.
The founder always demurred when asked if he had a favorite sign. Do you have to do that as a condition of employment or can you say if one piece defines the place for you?
The Regal Boot, from a shop in Brooklyn, New York, from what we understand. Visually, the shape and the glow—both light bulbs and neon—define the space. You can see the weight of the boot hanging from the overhead grid. But the sound of the clicking bulb chaser and the hum of neon when the lights are first turned on truly makes for a sensory experience.