January 22, 2009 / 6:41 PM / 10 years ago

NY exhibit "On the Money" finds humor in boom, bust

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When the well-heeled patrons of New York’s venerable Morgan Library wander through its new exhibition of cartoons about money, there may be some hollow laughter as they ponder their own hard times.

"Not as well off as our parents were at our age." Marker, gray wash, with white gouache by Dana Fradon. Published September 1992. REUTERS/Melvin R. Seiden Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum/Handout

The exhibit of 70 years of New Yorker magazine cartoons titled “On the Money” was planned over a year ago, before the full scale of the financial crisis that has plunged the United States and much of the world into recession became apparent.

But the economic gloom has given it added punch.

“There’s a cartoon in the show by Lee Lorenz — it’s a group of businessmen talking and one of them says ‘Why don’t we just say we have 91 percent full employment?’” curator Jennifer Tonkovich told Reuters at a preview of the show on Thursday.

“That’s from 1976... that could have appeared in last week’s issue,” she said.

She said some at the Morgan Library, which prominent financier Pierpoint Morgan established in the early 1900s as his private library, had questioned late last year whether they should go ahead with the show at a time of economic gloom.

“There is something to be said about the need for some perspective and some levity, even though it’s true that people are indeed really hurting,” Tonkovich said.

“Being able to smile, or laugh, or recognize a thought articulated through a cartoon, is actually a really cathartic thing right now,” she said.

At the end of the show, Tonkovich has juxtaposed a racy cartoon about “irrational exuberance” — a phrase coined by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan about the stock market boom of the 1990s — with one from 2002 in which a man returns home to his wife carrying an urn and says: “Do we have a place for our portfolio’s ashes?”

“That’s from 2002, but that’s really something I think everyone’s carrying with them today,” Tonkovich said.

The exhibit opens on Friday and runs until May 24.

Tonkovich sifted through hundreds of original drawings from a collection owned by Melvin Seiden and picked out around 70 starting from the late 1920s, through the Great Depression, the Wall Street boom of the 1980s and through to 2002.

She said the cyclical nature of economic booms and busts throughout history was clear from the show, and that was reassuring.

“It does come and go, it gets better and worse,” she said. “The consistency with which it happens is somehow comforting.”

"Lately, I've had the awful feeling that my marriage is tied to the dollar." Pen and black ink, with white gouache by William Hamilton. Published January 1979. REUTERS/Melvin R. Seiden Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum/Handout

The Morgan Library, in Midtown Manhattan, retains close links with the financial world, with board members from Morgan Stanley and other Wall Street firms among its corporate members.

“They are people who really do have the finger on the pulse, so for them it may be even more pungent and relevant and bitter-sweet,” she said.

“You find yourself laughing when you’ve also taken a substantial blow to your net worth in the past few months.”

Editing by Philip Barbara

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