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Kids and Modern Art: Think Outside the Frame

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • Wednesday June 11, 2008

We try to be good parents.  Really, we do!  We’ve worn our brain cells to little nubs giving our two daughters a grounding in the arts.  Piano lessons?  Check.  The National Gallery?  Check.  Dance classes, art camp, concerts at the Kennedy Center?  Check, check, check again.  Sure, threats may have been employed, and possibly a little light bribery from time to time.  If that’s what it takes to nurture young aesthetes in a YouTube world, so be it.

But there was one important area we’d always neglected – the world of contemporary art.

                                           Photo  by Mario Tama/Getty Images
So with spring break upon us, we got a brilliant idea.  Instead of the usual fun, relaxing week on a Florida beach, we’d head to New York for a cultural vacation. It would be great -- four days of intensive immersion in modern art, going to galleries and exploring the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art and, of course, the mother ship:  The Museum of Modern Art.

We probably wouldn’t get very tan.  But we’d come home with our brains tingling, bonding as a family over lively discussions of the latest ideas in avant-garde art.

Ok, fellow parents – stop laughing.

No matter how admirable the intention, art vacations with kids can be fraught with peril, as we discovered a few weeks later on New York’s Upper East Side, pushing our way through the crowded lobby of the Whitney Museum.

The Whitney seemed like a perfect place to start, since it happened to be hosting the famous Whitney Biennial -- a major survey of new work by the country’s most cutting-edge artists.  It promised to define “where American art stands today.”  What better introduction could there be?

But it looked like a pretty advanced show, so I gave the girls a “Modern Art 101” pep talk over dinner the night before.

“A lot of what we’ll see may seem weird,” I told them.  “But give it a chance, even if you don’t get it right away.  It’s going to be fun!  Artists are basically playful – they’re playing with ideas, turning things on their head, creating surprising, beautiful stuff designed to make you think in new ways. So let’s go with an open mind.  It’s going to be an adventure.”

But now, standing in the Whitney and staring into Jason Rhoades’ “The Grand Machine / THEAREOLA,” I wasn’t so sure.  The piece consists of a huge room filled with -- not to get overly technical about it – junk.  Really: a shambles of old office chairs, candy wrappers and other trash strewn across the floor.

Charles Long's  sculptures,  modeled on bird droppings
Christina, the eldest, raised a teenaged eyebrow at me. “So -- is this ‘art’?” she said, making little quote marks with her fingers.

At a loss for words, I turned to the catalog for help. Rhoades’ work, it explained, tried to “obscure any clear artist intention by overloading the viewer with information and multivalent imagery.”

Righty-o.  “Let’s go upstairs and see what else there is,” I said brightly.

But as we toured the exhibit over the next two hours, my little “art is fun” speech was looking increasingly out of touch. Room after room was filled with rough, in-your-face constructions of 2x4’s, broken glass and chunks of concrete.  We picked our way around Jedediah Caesar’s blocks of resin-encased garbage, and skipped quickly past Charles Long’s spindly sculptures made of street trash and modeled – not kidding -- on bird droppings.  We peered at Mitzy Pederson’s pile of cinder blocks and Ry Rocklen’s abandoned box spring, pondered a rough-hewn, Gatorade-powered “ecosystem” by Phoebe Washburn, and puzzled over Heather Rowe’s “Entrance (for some sites in dispute),” which looked like a demented delivery from Home Depot.

I looked at the girls.  They were being good sports.  But expressions of wonder and delight weren’t exactly dancing across their young faces.

“Not going well,” I whispered to my wife.

“No,” she whispered back. “Let’s go for cannolis.”

Now, the trip could have ended there in bitter defeat, with the girls scarred for life and unwilling to risk anything more edgy than a haystack or two by Monet.  But after a day of regrouping – i.e. clothes shopping, a rock show at The Town Hall, and more than one cannoli -- we tried again.

And his time we did it right.  Instead of isolating ourselves for hours in a museum grappling with Big Serious Issues, we explored the art scene lightly, as part of the city’s life.  We strolled the streets of Soho and Chelsea, spending as much time eating ice cream and talking with people as going into galleries. We glided down the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim to take in the sculptures of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, then headed for a romp in Central Park. We stopped in at Walter de Maria’s serene “New York Earth Room” (an elegant Soho gallery that, for the past thirty years, has been filled to a depth of two feet with carefully groomed dirt) and, feeling oddly refreshed, ambled down Mercer Street to try on shoes.

And it turned out to be a great approach to exploring the city.  There’s exciting new work in almost every corner of Manhattan – more than a hundred galleries in Soho and Chelsea alone, with exhibits opening every week --  and museums for every taste, from folk art to ultra-contemporary.  In fact, you’ll run into art just strolling around, since the city is full of public sculpture like Isamu Noguchi’s “Cube” (at 140 Broadway) and Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture (corner of 6th Avenue and 55th Street) are usually a hit with kids.

There’s so much diversity, in fact, that you’re bound to stumble across something really extraordinary.  For us, that happened on our last day, when we finally got around to the Museum of Modern Art. The MoMA’s an enormous place, where a serious art-lover could happily wander for days. But we skipped past the famous Cézannes and Matisses and elevatored directly to the top floor, where a new show called “Design and the Elastic Mind” had just opened.

Philip Worthington's "Shadow Monsters" at MoMA
And suddenly, we were in the playground of the imagination we’d been looking for. On the walls, ghostly computer-generated “light weeds” swayed to virtual winds, while a huge Mylar manta ray swam in the air overhead. A meticulously crafted honeycomb vase, made entirely by bees to human instructions, glowed in a glass case. There were sculptures that responded to the life around them, outlandish chairs “grown” by mimicking human biology, maps of the world that constantly changed shape as data flowed in from around the planet.

On and on it went, each piece more wonderful and thought provoking than the last. The girls ran excitedly from room to room, and we finally caught up with them in Philip Worthington’s installation, “Shadow Monsters.” It’s an amazing piece that projects peoples’ silhouettes against a wall, transforming them in real time into hysterically funny new creatures, and the girls were dancing and laughing as they watched themselves sprout wings, horns and long, bouncing antennae.

I looked at my wife and grinned.  Contemporary art, it seemed, had won a couple of new converts.  We’d be back.


Survival Guide: Ten Tips for Introducing Your Kids to Art
Seeing modern art with kids can be daunting – but if done well, tremendously exciting.  It’s always interesting to see what kids respond to, and while you don’t need to visit three museums in three days, as we did, a trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) can be a high point of any trip to New York. To make the most of the experience, follow these ten tips:
1.  Know when to go. Try for a weekday when museums are less crowded.  Many are closed Mondays or Tuesdays, but schedules vary. Check their websites for concerts, movies and special events, which can add interest to a visit. If the entry fees are daunting, take advantage of MoMA’s free admission on Fridays (when many of the museums stay open late) from 4-8 pm.  The Whitney also offers pay-what-you-wish admission on Fridays from 6 to 9 pm, and the Guggenheim has a similar policy on Fridays from 5:45-7:45 pm. Free isn’t entirely free, though: you’ll be fighting big crowds.
2. Do your homework.  It’s always good to know what you’re looking at, and while museum websites are helpful, Googling reviews of current exhibits will give you more insight. Talk with your kids about the exhibits and proper museum etiquette (no chewing on the art), and pick shows that they’re likely to respond to.  For instance, we skipped “Tlatelolco and the localized negotiation of future imaginaries” at the New Museums of Contemporary Art.  Just not cerebral enough.
3. Check out special programs for kids and families. MoMA has a number of events for kids 4 and up, and younger children may enjoy the interactive website “Destination: Modern Art”. The Whitney has “Family Fun Art Workshops” (ages 5-10), “Whitney Wees” (ages 4-5) and “Looking to Learn” tours for families most Saturday mornings; register by calling 212 671-5300.
4. Plan activities. Older kids will probably want to explore on their own, but smaller kids often like to be focused on specific tasks. Try “visual scavenger hunts,” remembering that questions like “point out paintings that are mostly blue,” will work better than  “find a post-modernist commentary on anomie.” Sketching in a museum is a good way to focus on the art, but parents are asked to carry the pencils when not in use (pens and crayons are not allowed).
5. Skip the line. Nothing kills a museum buzz like standing in line, and there are often lines, especially in the morning.  Buy tickets online at least a day ahead, and you can breeze right in.  Feels great!
6. Feed the beast.  A child marches on its stomach (as Napoleon would have said if he’d been a dad instead of Emperor), so keep the little treasures fed. Outside food is not allowed, but all the big museums have fun, comfortable restaurants. MoMA offers a kids menu at Café 2 on the second floor, and we had a light, delicious lunch at Terrace 5 upstairs.  The Guggenheim has its Museum Café, and the Whitney hosts Sarabeth’s Restaurant -- both are pleasant places to break up your visit, but be prepared for lines.
7.  Make gravity your friend. Try not to visit at the end of a long walking day:  museums are tough on the feet.  At the Guggenheim, take the elevator to the top and glide your way down the gently sloping spiral – otherwise you’re fighting gravity the whole way. And be sure to check as much of your gear as possible when you arrive.
8.  Try gallery tours.  These are often the best way to see a museum. The Whitney offers several free, docent-led tours of the museum every afternoon, and many others, including MoMA and the Guggenheim, have free audio self-guided tours; pick up a player at the entrance.  MoMA has special audio tours for kids, teenagers and families, and you can download them in advance here.  Or if you prefer the human touch, arrange to have a private family guided tour (call 212 708-9685).
9.  Pace yourself.  One museum a day is plenty for most kids, and it’s wise to limit your visit to about ninety minutes. Take breaks – many of the museums have sculpture gardens, which are perfect for this.
10. Plan a post-museum reward. It’s good to have something to look forward to, so promise kids ice cream, shopping, or a new puppy.  Ok, maybe not the puppy.  But MoMA has a world-famous gift shop with more than just the usual museum posters, and is well worth a visit.  For ice cream, there’s the famous Serendipity on the Upper East Side (225 E. 60th, between 2nd and 3rd), which kids may recognize from the movie One Fine Day.

Posted on Thursday, June 12, 2008 at 04:14PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

I'm also fond of contemporary art and knows much about it. When I only started to deal with it I used the information downloaded from http://rapid4me.com (rapidshare search). Now I have a great collection of the arts. If you need I may share it.
October 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

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