Last week I was at the annual gathering of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, held this year in Portland, Oregon. A small, spartan gathering compared to decades past, this might well have been called the Get Used To It Convention.
Last year in Seattle, the mood was akin to panic: The jobs were being axed left and right, the sponsoring paper folded a few months before the conference and everyone was nervous, for the organization as well as for their own job security. We were filled with questions: What do we do? Do we fold the group? Do we merge with the National Cartoonists Society? Do we cut back our conventions? Is the sky falling? HELP!
This year in Portland, there was more acceptance (as in the Five Stages of Grief acceptance, after Anger, Denial et al): OK, the old job model is broken and the old convention model might not come back, and we have to walk between venues and pay for our own beer. OK, so we’ll manage”¦ get used to it and move forward.
The old convention model was that we’d meet in a nice (not top-notch, but nice) hotel in the downtown of the host city, where we’d use the meeting rooms and banquet facilities. The home-town newspaper(s) would kick in a good amount for convention costs, and member cartoonists would often have their own newspapers pay some or all of the costs of attending. We’d have coat-and-tie receptions at museums or statehouses, usually with buses arranged to take the 150 or 200 of us there and back. News syndicates would host events, and cartoonists would line up at the hosted bar for their beer and wine. There would be sightseeing trips to the zoo or whatever, and a tote bag of various books, sketchpads, t-shirts and such upon registration.
Those days are gone. And we’ve given up, for now anyhow, on relying on newspapers to fund us. Their profits and circulation are way, way down, and not all of them are even staying in business.
This was the first of the new convention model, relying on university support (host editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman of the Oregonian conveniently happened to be an alumnus of Portland State University, the city’s main university, and was given good deals on the use of campus facilities). We stayed at a mid-range hotel (on the order of a Best Western motel) on the edge of campus. We used the Student Union meeting rooms and their audio-visual equipment, but were required to walk several blocks to get there from the hotel. Our opening reception was at another campus building. Our customary final-night banquet was at a restaurant in downtown Portland. All bars were pay-as-you-go.
There were no field trips or buses; instead we had large blocks of explore-the-city-on-your-own time. It helped that we were in a great city, walkable (the Rose City is known for its tiny city blocks) with good transit.
Turnout was way down from the old-style conventions, maybe 80 or so. Part of this was the economy, part was the continued job losses, part was the fact that very few papers pay for their cartoonists to attend, and a good part was that we were in the Pacific Northwest just the previous year, and people tend to go to conferences that are in their part of the country.
Nonetheless, the number of old-model staff editorial cartoonists was up a bit; one person said there were 14 full-timers this year, up from a mere 10 the year before.
Of course, in the old days, everyone was the cartoonist from such-and-such city or newspaper, and those in less-than-perfect situations canvassed the gatherings, trying to get the scoop on where there were openings or upcoming retirements creating openings. Nobody does much of that anymore, since new positions rarely open up, and a retirement often means the staff position is retired too.
But the point of it all at the AAEC convention, then and now, was to be able to see widely scattered colleagues who do what we do and know “” unlike nearly everyone else at a newspaper, who only partially understands what an editorial cartoonist is and does”” what our jobs and roles and all the challenges are like”¦ and that part, along with the camaraderie, has remained.
Many of us have become good friends, often of decades worth of standing. We’ve also had the less-than-thrilling experience of watching one another grow older, fatter, grayer or balder, made more pronounced by seeing each other only every year or few years.
The Grand Old Man of this gathering was Dick Locher, a former Pulitzer winner with the Chicago Tribune and current artist of the comic strip “Dick Tracy.” At age 81, he is gaunt and suffering from various ailments, but remains very active “” actually, with a heavier cartooning load than most “” and a still-superb draftsman, as well as a skilled sculptor; he showed a video of his newly-installed “Dick Tracy” statue in Naperville, IL, Locher’s home town.
But this gathering was not all about the past or aging Boomers. There were many young, sharp cartoonists, some working online, some doing animations, some freelancing to alt-weeklies or niche publications (all of which I’m doing too nowadays). Matt Bors, a transplant to Portland, co-hosted the convention and is considered one of the hot young cartoonists, and there were many others from the West Coast “” actually, Portland is crawling with cartoonists of all sorts… only Jack Ohman has the lone mass media slot of the big daily newspaper.
We had several panels on such things as cartoons for iPhone “apps,” reclusive master Jeff Danziger talking about his work, revamping the AAEC website and new directions for cartooning opportunities, including the Video Journalism Movement in The Netherlands, which I’ve been quite involved with for the past year.
My wife Roberta walked and shopped Portland with me, and loved it all (OK, maybe not all the walking). And I found out some good news too: I’m a finalist in the Alt-Weekly Awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (as were two others at this convention), with those results out next month.
Next year, we continue the educational setting at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, a school and resource center for journalists and future journalists. I hope to be there. I expect to pay my own way. And my own beer.
Gotta get used to it.
Be sure to see the huge archive of my work (organized by topic area) on my web site at http://www.greenberg-art.com