Sweet, high art at the Museum of Donuts

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These ones are for eating at the museum of Donuts in Ontario.  Photo: Nancy Carroll

I’m used to the reaction now: a snicker, a raised eyebrow, and a pause, as they wait for the punch line.  My husband, Jan, and I couldn’t possibly run something called the Museum of Donuts in Ontario, California, could we?

In fact, we could and we do.  We turn donuts into art and hang them from the walls on the downstairs floor of our apartment, which doubles as an “open studio.”  We also let the public in to see the donuts as part of the Ontario Art Walk.

Why do we do this?

The Museum of Donuts was inspired by our love of the roadside attraction, and of curiosities.  The idea of putting together a collection that was truly our own was irresistible.  And since donuts were irresistible, a museum — which is really an art installation — would be sure to stop people and get them talking.

Jan, an artist who has a day job working on affordable housing, gets full credit for the idea, but this is a collaboration between the two of us. (I’m an artistic person who works for a local nonprofit). The Museum of Donuts is a little bit high art, a little folk art and some serious tongue in cheek.  We use donuts to create themed shows and have discovered we can render almost anything and connect it back to donuts.

The museum of Donuts in Ontario. Photo: Nancy Carroll (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Our cereal/ serial killer donut series was a particular triumph, with “the zodiac cruller” donut and the Son of Sam donut “David Berko-Trix” (Trix is not just for kids, it turns out, but also for interpreting murderers in donuts).  The extraterrestrial donut series was a hit too, with the “alien bovine abduction” donut and “the classic” tinfoil and antenna-covered donut as highlights.  And because we are open to all kinds of ideas, we welcome guest artists: Bring a dozen donuts and you’re in.

We started the Museum of Donuts last summer as a quirky way to participate in the Ontario Art Walk and Open Studios.  Our loft is in an artist-oriented building that is at the center of the art walk, which is held six times a year. For us, putting together the museum felt like throwing a party — we invited friends over, put out some food, played some music and showed off our newly created pieces. It just so happens that our ‘art’ is a donut.

We’ve learned some lessons along the way and I’ll share one important secret.  If you decide to hang donuts on the wall, fresh donuts are a bad choice.  Better to buy that dozen a few days before the exhibition and let them dry out and firm up a little bit.  Nothing sadder than seeing all your hard work sagging on the wall because it was floating in a deep fryer a few hours ago.  And visitors to the Museum of Donuts tend to get hungry looking at donuts and expect to ‘interact’ with the donuts at some point.  We do, in fact, serve donuts from area shops as part of the experience.

People get so excited just walking into the Museum of Donuts.  Visitors feel like they have been transported–sometimes at a cost to the artwork. My first art piece, “Art Imitates Life,” was composed of handmade felt donuts on a felt plate and a similar plate of real (but very stale) donuts that were similar in shape as size to the felt display. Okay, so we’re not the Getty, but I became frustrated when people kept touching my art piece–even when asked politely not to–with a very clear goal of eating it. It only helped a little when I put a sign.

So I found myself saying: “No, those are art.  The real donuts are over here.”

And : “Yes, thank you.  No, no, those donuts are not to be eaten.  They’re part of the art.”

Inevitably that didn’t stop a few very determined visitors with their eye on the prize.  They came to the Museum of Donuts and they were going to have a donut.  I had to be vigilant and steer them away from the days-old display donut and toward a fresh tasty one.

During the art walks, my husband and I take turns playing host so we each get a chance to walk around the event to see neighbors and people-watch. But, on a recent art walk, after I had my turn for some fresh air, I came back to the museum and saw…. nothing.  My art piece contained an empty plate. When I asked my husband what had happened, he just shrugged.  Someone couldn’t resist the call of stale donuts–even with tempting fresh donuts nearby. Clearly, the between art and food had been crossed and re-crossed.  I now count how successful an art walk is by how many ‘art’ donuts I can save from being eaten.  With a keen eye and diligence, at the last walk, we only lost 7 donut holes, a new record.

Donuts strike a chord with people. Visitors to the Museum of Donuts often share their donut stories without hesitation: memories of going to get donuts with their dad before or after church, midnight runs to the donuts shop as teenagers, working at a donut shop and even living next door to the donut guy.  The fact that donuts seem to connect people was completely unexpected and sweet.

Donuts aren’t just addicting; they have taken over parts of our lives. Running the Museum of Donuts has made me look at everything in a different way.  I see ideas for future shows everywhere.  Once people started to take us seriously (relatively speaking, of course) the ideas and recommendations came in a steady stream.  I have at least two upcoming shows planned from ideas given to us.  And when we travel, a trip to the local bakery or donut shop – for artistic inspiration — becomes part of the itinerary.  I’ve reached out to several famous donut establishment and received great responses from VooDoo Doughnut in Oregon (check out their VooDoo Doll Doughnut and Maple Bacon Bar) and Guru Donuts in Idaho (don’t miss the Gandhi).

What’s next for the museum of Donuts?  I’m not really sure.  We have plenty of ideas, but our primary focus, for now, is trying to explain it all with a straight face.

Nancy Carroll often blurts things out and wishes she hadn’t, like the time she suggested to her boss that one way to improve morale at work would be to institute company-wide afternoon naps. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.