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NewsSep 13, 2018

Neon signs light up Lunder Arts Center

Partnership with The Greenway Conservancy brings historic installation to Lesley

Neon sign that reads: "radio and television station" with an arrow pointing to the bottom left corner of the rectangular sign.
Photo: Originally located inside Briggs and Briggs Radio and Television Salon in Harvard Square, the sign is now on display at the Lunder Art Center through April 2019.

By Georgia Sparling

Since August, the Lunder Arts Center’s windows have been aglow each night with vintage neon signs that once graced Cambridge’s byways.

The signs are a satellite exhibition of GLOW, an installation of eight historic beacons from the collection of Dave and Lynn Waller that began lighting up Boston’s Greenway this summer.

In August, our College of Art and Design’s Office of Community Engagement installed three more of those signs at the Lunder Arts Center. GLOW is the second exhibit Lesley has hosted with the nonprofit Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy during a three-year partnership.

The Rexall Drug sign once hung in Cambridge's Central Square.

“We are thrilled to be partnering again with (Lesley) in presenting these historic neon signs, that for many years were part of the roadside graphic identity of the commonwealth,” said Lucas Cowan, The Greenway’s public art curator. "In showcasing the signs together in both a contemporary urban park in Boston and at the Lunder Arts Center, we’re inviting the public to reinterpret these signs and reconsider how neon, as well as other kinds of light, can define public space.”

The signs, which once buzzed outside of Massachusetts businesses, come from an era in U.S. history, from 1925 to 1970, when they were “considered the new technology of the day,” Lesley Director of Community Engagement Katherine Shozawa said.

The Allen drug sign is removed, looks like the late 80s or early 90s.
The Rexall Drug sign is removed.

The bright lights became landmarks in their communities and highlighted small businesses. While they wouldn’t have been considered art, they were a form of “creative expression” according to Victoria Solan, architectural historian and consultant historian for the GLOW exhibition.

Evoking a bygone era in Cambridge and the surrounding area, the signs have an immediate connection point with the public, said Shozawa.

“I think it’s so accessible, whether you have training in art and design or not. Everyone has a point of entry into the work,” she said.

Two signs face Massachusetts Avenue: a crowned mortar and pestle from Rexall Drugs in Central Square, circa 1955, and a luminescent red and blue sign that once hung inside of Briggs and Briggs Radio and Television Salon in Harvard Square, circa 1948.

This sign ended up on a seafood restaurant before David and Lynn Waller added it to their collection.

The third sign, facing Roseland Street, was originally on a seafood restaurant in the northeastern Massachusetts town of Rowley, but was designed for a western-themed chicken restaurant that, for whatever reason, never claimed its sign. The seafood restaurant owner rescued the sign and, in 1935, hung it on his storefront instead. The "Chicken in a Hurry" sign will be on display through December 2018.

Regardless of their original purpose, Shozawa anticipates that the signs will be a discussion point for anyone who sees them — both contemporary artists and the general public.

“I think there’s this niche interest in neon signs and for artists and designers who use neon as their medium. The signs are really visually captivating. People are just drawn to them,” she said.

The rusty Chicken in a Hurry sign on its building from 1990.
The Chicken in a Hurry sign sits on its adopted home, circa 1990.

GLOW will be on display at the Lunder Arts Center through Spring 2019. An opening reception will be held on Sept. 27 at 6-8 p.m. A number of other public events will be planned in conjunction with the Greenway through 2019 and in partnership with local Cambridge arts organizations, including a panel discussion with Cowan and hands-on workshops in new digital media for high school students.