The Possibilities of a Children’s Art Museum

Last weekend my daughter and I spent the morning at the National Zoo. She turns three later this summer and this was our fifth trip to the zoo since the weather turned nice this spring. Every visit is so different from the last one, even when our path is the same. I never know where she will decide to spend her time. This weekend it was the Amazonian House (a fortuitous side trip that started on the hunt for a potty). Kira was enthralled by the blue frogs, snakes, river fish and stingrays. And I loved discovering how few things she naturally finds yucky (tiger salamanders) and how many yucky things she asks to touch (snakes, frogs and prehistoric looking fish).

On the way home, Kira sound asleep in her car seat, I found myself thinking about the way zoos create, in one installation, experiences that are so deeply engaging for everyone from two year olds to adults. The way that zoos engage families and noise and messiness and crowds, shopping and rides and animals and conservation lessons, and make it all part of a learning experience that people can unpack based on their own growth and interests. And I started thinking about the places Kira and I go regularly – the zoo, the National Air and Space Museum, The Natural History Museum, the American History Museum – and the one museum experience we never seem to make happen: art museums. We draw and paint and look at pictures nearly every day. I love to draw. I love art museums myself. And yet, here we are.

I never thought about it before, but I wish we were creating Children’s Art Museums. Not art museums that children can visit – with ancillary hands-on programs created for them, backpacks they can take with them filled with exercises, and the like – but art museums designed for families and children from two to eighteen years old. Art museums designed around the central mission to build a fascination with visual creativity and visual expression from a young age. Art museums that, like the zoo, would be exciting to my daughter as a two year old and would unfold in additional layers of meaning as she grows.

Imagine what that experience would be like – the collection, the physical spaces, the programs. In my mind the collection would be selected for the importance of the pieces, as in any museum, and also (first, really) for engagement. In much the way top-tier children’s theatres (Childsplay, Oregon Children’s Theatre and others) produce compelling, professional theatre for kids, the Children’s Art Museum would be built around compelling, meaningful art. What could that collection look like? I imagine (using my admittedly idiosyncratic first thoughts, and ignoring all the challenges of creating such a collection) my daughter running around Richard Serra’s sculptures such as “Band” or “Charlie Brown.” Experiencing in those works the way they divide space, their scale, the way sound echoes in their spaces, the views they create, the rough cold feeling of the steel, the disoriented feeling you get when you walk around “Band” and lose your sense of the vertical. I can see kids milling beneath Roxy Paine’s sculpture “Graft” (which they do, in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden), looking at the reflections and the light and the shapes and the simple oddity of a stainless steel tree. Andy Goldsworthy’s constructions, Damien Hirst’s butterfly paintings, Wayne Thiebaud’s brightly lit confections, Kosice’s ciudad hidroespacial, David Hockney’s iPad drawings (made on the same device kids love to play with!), Munari’s useless machines, the list goes on (and much further back in time than this). All have enough wonder in them, enough visceral immediate connection to engage young kids. And all have enough creative depth and art-historical meaning to support education about art and visual expression as those kids get older.

What would the experience be like in the galleries of a Children’s Art Museum? Art that can engage kids exists in lots of adult-centered art museums but the space and the experience isn’t designed around kids and families as it is in zoos. I imagine a space that is fun and playful, probably loud and a bit crazy too – not really the place of quiet adult reflection that art museums aim to be today. I imagine a space where “core” and “ancillary” (and revenue generating) activities are integrated together as equal components of the experience as they are when I walk through the zoo, embracing the chaotic energy of kids. Kids and families would flow through exhibits, rides, dining areas, hands-on programming, demonstrations and resting areas as they travel the paths through the museum. I imagine galleries and exhibitions organized by new themes that kids can embrace, such as line or space, color or material, rather than the traditional art-history focus of artist and movement and epoch. Where works need to be protected from small hands, integrated barriers would exist in place of hovering guards and stern warnings. Perhaps a painting would have a railing in front of it with steps and seats for kneeling that make it easy for small kids to get up to see the work, with kid-oriented interpretive information too or a small version of the mounted binoculars that kids love so they can see details of the paint strokes. And maybe we could be practical about where touching is really an issue since touching is a big part of how kids learn. Maybe works like Serra’s, made of weatherproof steel, can handle being handled a bit. And as a parent, I’d love to have an experience that can readily move between outdoors and indoors too for different times of the year and my daughter’s different moods.

A children’s art museum like this would still be valuable and engaging for teens and adults, much as zoos are. Layered programming and information would allow a two year old, an elementary school child, a teenager in high school, and an adult to unpack layers of meaning over time. The museum’s new approach to the experience and organization of art might even encourage adults to think about art in a very different way. Focused on building a love for visual creativity and expression rather than expertise in art history, the museum would likely bring to the forefront different ideas and questions for adults too. I imagine it would be much harder to create quiet, contemplative time with the objects in the Children’s Art Museum but perhaps in return you would better understand them as integrated parts of contemporary life.

Maybe this just sounds like marketing and packaging for art museums, but the visitor experience is a product of the details. If all the details were designed around the mission of “a children’s art museum” to create a love of art and visual creativity from a young age, then the experience (from marketing to every detail on site) would be quite new. Is this just about wonder and amazement – art as amusement park? In some ways, for the youngest, perhaps yes, but then the experience builds on that energy over time, in the same way zoos add ecology and biology and conservation as layers on top of the natural wonder for animals. I often imagine that, back when art museums were first opened to the public, wonder and amazement were a tremendous part of the experience. I think it would be great to have some of that feeling back.

I guess this sort of noodling is what happens when you spend half your time working with some of the top executives in the cultural field asking big questions, and the other half of your time watching a little girl discover the world. I’m pretty lucky on both fronts. So where would you take this (or are you already there)? Anyone want to open the first Children’s Art Museum with me? Or think about the other cultural institutions we have designed for adults and imagine what that experience would look like if it were redesigned for families and children? Would we regain the “lost audience” that disappears for all those years when parents are raising kids and reemerges only after the kids leave for college? Would we have many more kids asking to go to art museums and other cultural institutions the way they ask to go to the zoo today?

 

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Jim. I’m the Director of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Here’s my two cents. We’ve done many shows with first rate artists, from the current Red Grooms show to Warhol, Bearden, Elizabeth Murray and more. My sense is that the best way to get more children to see art is to embed it in museums or places where families can encounter it as part of a larger experience. Too many adults self define as “not into art” and do not go to art museums and wouldn’t go to a children’s art museum. So, one runs the risk of preaching to the converted. A great way to get kids to see art is through public art, especially in parks.

    • Jim Rosenberg says

      Hi Andrew. Thanks for your comment — you make a great point. The idea of integrating an effort like this into a larger experience or co-locating it in some way would be a great way to reach families who don’t think about art or museums. Your comment made me think of a project one of our friends here at NAS, Peggy Sloan at the North Carolina Aquariums, ran last summer (http://www.ncaquariums.com/archives/17034). She worked with DREAMS to bring art to the aquarium with two goals in mind: to introduce the sea to a community of kids who have never experienced it but were involved in art, and to bring an arts experience to the large audience they reach at the aquarium. This program was focused on making art rather than presenting “professional” art but I think it’s a nice example of the idea you raise.

  2. Lee says

    I actually love this idea. I agree that for parents who already enjoy art, it would be perfect to embed experiences within museums, but what about parents who don’t know anything about art (or maybe aren’t even interested in art)? What about parents who think art museums are quiet places where they have to constantly monitor their children’s excitement and voice levels (read hassle)? I think for parents without art knowledge, it could be very intimidating to take their children to an average art museum and even hope to pique their kids’ interest. And I don’t see the guided docent tour or headsets doing the trick.

    I worked for my local arts council for a few years and was very frustrated because ‘the arts’ were very low on family value lists in my county, usurped by sports, sports and more sports. The thing is, parents are looking for a way to engage their kids and use up some of their energy and sports are an easy way to do it. Even if the parents don’t have the expertise, there are clubs and coaches and built-in leagues to help them. I know there are art camps and classes, but those do not generally allow the parent to cheer them on from the sidelines. Seems like lots of parents are looking for experiences they can both enjoy (like the movie Toy Story!) and their kids come home ready for a nice, quiet nap.

    I think I might be babbling, so I’ll stop now.

    PS – I would totally love to help open a Children’s Art Museum. :)

    best,
    lee

  3. Altagracia Levat says

    Hi Jim,
    Just such a museum is currently in construction in the Sugar Hill section of Northern Manhattan–integrated into a housing complex: The Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling. Below is a description taken from an interview with the Executive Director Susan Delvalle, formerly of El Museo del Barrio. Perhaps you’d like to interview her and Dr. Ofelia Rodriguez, Director of Community Outreach.

    With 124 units of affordable housing, an expansive early childhood education center, green initiatives and a focus on culture and the arts, Broadway Housing’s newest endeavor, situated in Harlem’s historic Sugar Hill district, is a model of urban community revitalization. The Sugar Hill Project is also home to ArtPlace’s 2012 top-ranked award recipient, the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling. –

    See more at: http://www.artplaceamerica.org/articles/sugar-hill-childrens-museum-of-art-storytelling-5/#sthash.OAahr9CE.dpuf

  4. says

    Hi Jim,

    This summer the Philadelphia Museum of Art launched a huge initiative called Art Splash– five exhibitions and ten weeks of family programs that have taken over the Museum’s Perelman Building. It’s many of the things you describe: loud and energetic but rather than just geared towards kids, it’s designed especially with families in mind. Our goal was one of intergenerational engagement and I’ve been impressed by how few parents I’ve seen texting and playing on their phones, and instead, really doing stuff with their kids. It is challenging to strike the right tone in engaging the whole family– I would be curious as to how this would operate at an Art Museum that is 100% geared towards kids.

    If you and Kira are up for a road trip to Philly, come check it out! We’re up through September 2. http://www.philamuseum.org/artsplash

    Best,
    Emily
    Assoc. Curator of Education for Family and Community Learning, Philadelphia Museum of Art

  5. lisa terreni says

    Hi, I am a visual arts lecturer in early childhood programmes at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. I am currently doing my PhD on young children’s access to art museums in Aotearoa New Zealand so this article interested me a lot. Anecdotally (and more research is currently being done on this), whilst family groups are being better catered for here, early childhood centres who want to visit art musuems for an excursion (pre-school children with their teachers) are often not well catered for. Sometimes the attitude of art museums is that these groups are too hard to manage (lots of little kids running around all over the place making noise) which creates an instant barrier to access. However, early childhood teachers are skilled at managing and preparing children for such visits (probably better than parents in many cases). The rich learning opportunities that art museums offer all children (who are, of course, the art museum vistors of the future…and it’s good to start them young) are often only provided for school-aged children which, in my mind, is rather discriminatory.

    Early childhood centre excursions almost always involve parents…and what better way to educate parents at the same time!

  6. Lacy says

    I have wished for the same for a long time. As an art educator, I think the possibilities of blending a children’s museum and an art museum would be so beneficial to so many. A while back I attended the Chagall for Children exhibit at the Kohl Children’s Museum. It was extremely well planned, educational, and hands-on. http://www.kohlchildrensmuseum.org/exhibits/rental/chagall
    I think when it is as well put together as the this one was the issue of parents who aren’t that into art would disappear. I love the thought of a whole children’s art museum in a similar manner to the Chagall for Children exhibit (I also love the thought of being a part of the development of the museum as well)!

  7. Sheri says

    It was funny that I stumbled across your article tonight. I am an art teacher in Texas and have been doing quite a bit of thinking lately concerning the need of a children’s art museum in the metroplex. I do not think it needs to simply be a place where children and their parents come to see art. I think it needs to be interactive and engaging for everyone whether they are 4 or 40. I have so many ideas…some I am sure are WAY out there but it would be amazing to see a children’s art museum materialize.

  8. Carol Fineberg says

    Just stumbled across this conversation which strikes many of the “lost chords” of art education, its purpose, the roles of adult, family and children’s museums. It also serves as a good reminder that what one knows is not the only barometer of existing specialized knowledge! Part of the problem with creating a valuable museum is the directed need to amuse which in some institutions results in trivialization rather than inspiration. Another problem in the development of museums that want to attract children is the lack of children’s art properly displayed at children’s heights and exemplifying some wonderful child like views of the world that they know. There are some brilliant museums that are made especially for children, some adult museums that make great programs for children, and family museums that are the equivalent of Jim’s zoo experiences. What they share is a respect for children and art equally, a joyful notion of what inspires and provokes, and an avoidance of pedantry or cuteness in the process of conceiving their exhibits and activities. As an arts advocate, educator, evaluator and grandmother, those are the places that I seek out in my own NYC as well as where I travel for work or pleasure.

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