Just after I’d accepted my job at MoMA, I brought my six-year-old son along with me to visit. He entered the Marron Atrium and, with a sweeping, 360-degree review and an air of finality, announced, “I like your new museum, mom.” Good thing it passed muster.
I often wonder what it is to grow up in a museum. From the time he was two, Ethan had a steady diet of contemporary art. Bridges made of Meccano sets; entire cities built of pots and pans; rooms glowing with neon tubes; walls covered with “parades” of people made from ripped black construction paper; cars and trailers jack-knifed, emerging out of a museum plaza; metal squares on the floor, perfect for playing hopscotch—to Ethan, art always seems full of possibilities.
His own “work” attests to that, as we find colored-tape installations proliferating throughout our apartment—often accompanied by an objet trouvé repurposed in interesting ways, or a small love note to mom and dad.
Ethan, now nine, accompanied me to the office last week. Between serious work—sharpening pencil crayons for teen programs, reviewing activities for our upcoming Shape Lab for children, and, most importantly, rearranging my desk toys—we made a quick trip to the galleries to see a “hot car.”
Ethan has always loved the red Ferrari that hangs in the entryway to the Education and Research Building. Our walks to P.S. 58 each morning are a veritable quest to spot a Lamborghini Murciélago or a Ferrari—Italian design is now in his blood. This is usually followed by a debate over the merits of various luxury sports cars, and why each would be ideal as our next family car.
So today we go to see Gabriel Orozco’s La DS. Clad in a Tim Burton t-shirt, my young man holds my hand as we make our way through the crowds. (I show him the insider’s secret of using the north elevators that go straight to the sixth floor.) He leaves the elevator only to be delighted by another elevator car—he’s not sure if he can enter or touch it, but eventually does both, albeit a bit timidly—an entrée into Mr. Orozco’s world of the commonplace, uncommonly placed.
He scoffs a bit at the shoebox at the entrance, saying, ”It’s just a plain shoebox,” and I have to restrain myself from trying to introduce Marcel Duchamp. Somehow art history fails in this moment; better to rely on the broader lens of life experience. As we continue on I start to talk about everyday things that are changed or altered, when I hear him exclaim: “CHESSBOARD!” He examines it closely and notes some curious elements—all horses, not black and white but many shades of brown, too many squares—and we talk about how artists make you take another look at something you think you know and understand, leading you to see something different.
As we wind our way through to the central room, La DS takes center stage. An unexpected alteration of a hot car makes an almost perfect-sized vehicle for a nine-year-old boy. He’s smitten.
We continue on, looking and occasionally gleaning bits from labels, Ethan’s curiosity piqued by this and that—the hanging sculpture, carved from soap, that looks like a clam eating a bird; the vast array of sculptural experiments on a table; the fascinating, perplexing skull (was it real or not?); and, finally, the yogurt cup tops, singly placed on facing walls. It was then that I heard him say something new, something I’d heard murmured by visitors as we moved through the galleries: “Some of this does not look like art.” He followed up with a decisive assessment that some of what was on view was art, and some of it was, in his words,“just regular things—you don’t know if they’ve got meaning.”
I questioned him as to whether it was important to label something art—do we ask, Is that math? Is that music? What’s interesting to me is that when an artist uses something that we think we know, like shoeboxes, we often can’t think beyond the box. Can it be art just because the artist says so? We talked about inventors and scientists, his favorite subspecies, and how they see unexpected connections in the everyday. When Albert Einstein, Ethan’s hero, created theories of relativity, for instance, he pushed the boundaries of what people thought was “physics.” (Sidenote: Check out the book Odd Boy Out—a favorite in my household!)
In retrospect, I’m delighted we had an experience together that challenged both of us to see and think anew about art and life. We’ve continued to talk about these ideas, and he told me this morning that he’d changed his mind, had decided it’s necessary to “think about things differently and look a bit deeper.” The museum experience, not the answer, was both memorable and generative.
I often search through Flickr looking at pictures people take of their experiences at MoMA, looking for clues to what people value. What interests me is each visitor’s unique perspective—his or her take—on the confluence of people, art, and building. The objects and the building are catalysts for experiences people want to remember. What I’d love to see are photos showing how children view their experience at MoMA. I invite you to submit photographs taken by any child who has visited the Museum lately to our Flickr page.