I Don’t Know Art but I Know I Like Vintage Purses How This Writer Became a Museum Curator


by Wendy Dager

The imaginary handwriting was on the virtual wall. Or more precisely, the end of days for traditional newspapers began as soon as social media became the preferred form of receiving information.

This has resulted in round after round of staff layoffs nationwide at newspapers large and small. Some freelancers, like myself, survived for a while because our services were still needed as the newsrooms emptied. We’re inexpensive labor. Corporate doesn’t have to provide us with benefits such as 401(k)s and health care. And we’re dependable. At least, I was dependable, getting steady assignments to write crime blotters, real estate stories, entertainment pieces, and “advertorials” for special sections.

Then they stopped calling. But I’m a cockroach—a colorful one with pink hair and vintage skirts—and I’ve weathered a few career nukes. I’m one of those weirdly adaptable writers who’s done a lot of different types of work. In addition to newspaper articles and advertorials, I had a biweekly opinion column for sixteen years, wrote greeting-card copy, button and keychain slogans, magazine articles, video and flash animation scripts, press releases, ad copy, corporate newsletters and blog posts, a couple of novels, and, most recently, piles of SEO copy for an online company. I’ve always said, “When one door slams shut, another might open a little, so you better wedge your foot in there while you can.”

About three years ago, I anticipated losing my main source of income—the newspaper for which I’d freelanced since 1998—so I thought about what I’d like to do instead. Sure, it still says “writer” on my tax return and I’m not going to stop writing for money as long as someone will have me, but…

It’s time for something different.

Besides working as a writer, I am a collector. I have an enormous collection of vintage clothing, jewelry, shoes, hats, and purses. Lots and lots of purses. Too many purses. As my vintage purse collection grew, I began thinking they’d make a great exhibit. In 2014 I got a certificate in Art Museum and Gallery Studies online from California State University, East Bay, with the intention of starting my own purse museum. Don’t laugh—there are three in the world: the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, Netherlands; and the Simone Handbag Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Purses are portable works of art. They can be beautiful. Breathtaking. Scenic. Silly. Whimsical. And they have an enormous fan base.

As a native Californian, I was smitten with the idea of establishing a West Coast purse museum. Lots of folks who have talent in one form of art find they can do something else with equal aplomb. For instance, there are plenty of famous actors who are accomplished painters. I figured it wouldn’t be a stretch to go from freelance writer to museum curator. I love collecting, but I also love the history of bags and get excited about researching their origins. There are, however, obstacles. Big ones. Mainly, unlike your favorite A-list actor, it’s hard for us regular folks to finance what amounts to a vanity project. I live in a suburb just outside of Los Angeles County, which you’d think would at least be geographically accommodating of a vintage purse museum. Yet, upon doing a ton of research during the museum certification process—including two museum internships and the feasibility study that was my final project—I learned it would be too expensive to establish a museum, given the high rents, building permits, insurance, and other costs. I ruled out creating a nonprofit, because besides having to make an initial substantial personal monetary investment, owning a museum’s collection while being director and/or curator of the nonprofit is a gray area. There’s a scary possibility that one could establish a nonprofit museum, donate or lend one’s collection to the museum, then be ousted by the nonprofit board.

Yep, I have looked into every angle. My husband and I even discussed moving to a less-expensive and more arts-friendly community to create a for-profit museum, but we are currently unable to leave California because of family obligations and financial reasons.

So here’s where I’m at today. The Vintage Purse Gallery, www.VintagePurseGallery.com, is my online-only vintage handbag museum. It’s free to “visit” and is obviously open 24 hours a day. I have Google ads on the main website and its various sub-websites, which earn a few cents a week. Meaning that it’s not at all profitable—especially since I keep using my own limited funds to add to the collection. Nor will it turn any sort of profit until we figure out how to make money.

In the meantime, I use social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to promote the site and draw traffic from all over the world. We are also in the process of creating a mobile purse exhibit out of a 1961 Aristocrat Land Commander trailer. It’s a pretty cool little trailer and my husband, who is rehabbing it, is the most incredible man on Earth—talent-wise and tolerance-of-me-wise. Once it’s finished, we want to bring the mobile exhibit to local vintage car shows, “glamping” rallies, and other one-day events, in the hope that event planners will pay us to attend. But they’d have to think it’s worth it.

We’re also making purse-themed items, which we’d sell online and at these events. My ultimate goal is to turn this hobby into a career, but most art, much like most writing, is an undervalued commodity. If we were to open a brick-and-mortar and expect it to support our existence, the exhibits would need to be supplemented by a gift shop and special promotions such as fashion shows, tea parties, vintage-themed celebrations, food trucks, and so on.

This can be done, but it’s greatly dependent on timing, finances, and the will to make it happen. I definitely have the will. I’m just hoping the other two elements will eventually fall into place.

Wendy Dager is a professional freelance writer whose career has spanned nearly three decades. To read more about her work, visit www.WendyDager.com. To visit The Vintage Purse Gallery, an online handbag museum, go to www.VintagePurseGallery.com. For more about the mobile purse exhibit, The Rolling Vintage (RV) Purse Museum – Where the Handbag Meets the Highway, check out www.RVPurseMuseum.com.



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