“Transforming” Tucson’s History: Ignite Sign Art Museum
By Douglas Towne
There are many ways to illuminate a city’s history; Jude and Monica Cook’s version is resplendent. The couple’s creation, Ignite Sign Art Museum, is a collection of Tucson’s discarded signage. Relighted, these advertisements electrify the city's past.
"Visitors thank us for what we're doing in preserving and restoring Tucson's historic signs; it's not something we expected," Monica says. How did this couple from Iowa come to be de facto keepers of the Old Pueblo’s commercial history? It all started with a sign that attracted Jude's attention almost a half-century ago.
“I acquired my first sign in 1973 after discovering it under a bench in the sign shop in Iowa where I first apprenticed,” Jude says. “It was a porcelain Coca Cola sign; the sign maker was using the back of it as a roller pan.” And he has continued to collect signs ever since that fateful day.
Astonishingly, his wife, Monica, encouraged such behavior. She even added to his collection, noting which signs intrigued Jude. "I would stop by later and purchase the sign," she says. "I kept them hidden for months and then surprised him for his birthday or Christmas.”
Jude started his own sign company in Iowa in 1976 and opened Cook & Company Signmakers when the couple moved to Tucson in 1983. Monica recalls that they both conceived of opening a sign museum when Jude hosted a 40th-anniversary party for their business in 2016. “He lit up all the signs in his shop and invited friends and customers,” she recalls. “People loved seeing all the signs, and we heard comments like, ‘This place is like a museum!’”
The Cook's most significant hurdle to opening Ignite Sign Art was locating a suitable building, according to Monica. “We needed parking, high ceilings, and square footage, plus it had to be affordable.” They found the former Clyde Hardware store at 331 South Olsen Avenue after two years of searching and made an offer the next day.
The couple has never looked back on their decision to open the museum, which is available for events and classes. The space features rotating exhibits and a neon plant, where volunteers do glass-bending demos. “The adventure has been fun, but it would be nice to have a lot more money,” Jude says. “We could do even more.”
The museum’s lobby features Deco, a boutique that offers quirky regional handmade crafts and an abundance of sign-themed art. Monica and her sister have operated the business since 2009, which was formerly located on Broadway’s “Sunshine Mile” strip. The rest of the 7,000 square-foot building is filled with more than 250 signs and advertisements, including some from outside Tucson.
Jude’s favorite sign in the museum is the small, art deco Old Fitzgerald bourbon sign. For Monica, the choice is more complicated. “I like the 76 ball because it’s big, orange, and rotates,” she says. “The Arby's sign with all the light bulbs is an eye-catcher. The Valencia Market sign is another favorite because it's a great example of the art deco period in signage.”
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Nov/Dec 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No. 6.