December 7, 2009  |  Events & Programs
Making Art at MoMA
A young partcipant in MoMA's <i>Children’s Holiday Carnival of Modern Art,</i> December 5, 1950–January 7, 1951. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

A young participant in an educational program at MoMA, 1951

Is a museum solely a place to revere the creative work of artists included in exhibitions, or can it be a nexus for exploring and fostering personal creativity by participating in art making? This is a question I ponder often, and a salient question in light of MoMA’s early history.

When I began as deputy director for education at MoMA three years ago, I was amazed by the number of people who would regale me with stories about their early experiences making art at MoMA. The stories were filled with passion and detail that spoke of a deep and abiding sense of kinship with MoMA as a place of personal learning and inspiration.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, clarified the educational mission of the Museum in 1944: “to help people enjoy, understand, and use the visual arts of our time.” In Barr’s view, the Museum’s mission was “educational in the broadest, least academic sense” (“The Museum Collections: A Brief Report,” 1944).

Barr conceived of “the Museum as a laboratory in whose experiments the public is invited to participate,” according to René D’Harnoncourt, the subsequent director of MoMA (Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Suzanne P. Hudson, p. 42).

Poster for MoMA's  War Veterans' Art Center. 1942

An early poster for art classes at MoMA, 1942

One of Barr’s most significant moves was hiring Victor D’Amico in 1937 to become the first director of the “Educational Project.” Over the next thirty-two years, fired by a pedagogical position that put art making and creativity at the center of appreciating modern art, D’Amico created a series of programs and resources, including a Young People’s Gallery; a Veteran’s Art Center; the innovative Art Barge, where summer classes were held; and The People’s Art Center (later the Institute of Modern Art), which brought five hundred children and three hundred adults to the Museum every week for art classes.

D’Amico’s vision for fulfilling MoMA’s educational mission supported developing the individual’s creativity, guided by skilled teachers in workshop settings rather than with the more traditional museum approach of copying art within the galleries. He believed strongly in the humanizing effect of art, understandable given the context of the end of the Depression and WWII, and later the Cold War and Vietnam War.The People’s Art Center was fertile ground for many, including Sol LeWitt, who taught classes. In her book Robert Ryman: Used Paint, Suzanne Hudson points out that Ryman, a self-taught artist and musician who worked as a guard at MoMA, studied briefly at the People’s Art Center, and his practice was shaped by the experiential learning that was central to MoMA in its first thirty years.
Motivational Activities – The Children’s Art Carnival

Motivational activities at the Children’s Art Carnival, 1956

A series of Children’s Art Carnivals—carefully designed environments that included “motivational” hands-on games to manipulate “real” art and art reproductions, complemented by an art-making studio—served as models of progressive American art education as they traveled to the U.S. Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair (1958) and International Trade Fairs in Milan and Barcelona (1957). In 1962 a Children’s Art Carnival was sent to India and presented as a gift to the country by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.


Victor D'Amico at the Children’s Art Carnival in New Delhi, India, 1963

In addition D’Amico founded the Committee on Art Education (1942–57), an annual forum for continual discussion about the nature of art and teaching, which included educators, psychologists, art directors, artists, and teachers along with such guest speakers as Margaret Mead and Archibald McLeish.

An early adapter, D’Amico had his own family art-making television show on NBC, Through the Enchanted Gate in 1952, which incorporated a segment with advice to parents. Clearly Mrs. Koons and Mrs. Warhola did not pay attention to his advice from this clip!

At D’Amico’s retirement the education program he had evolved was in effect shut down. A more modest, scholarly, object-centered and gallery-focused approach evolved in different permutations over the years, privileging looking at and talking about art over art making.

Although today at MoMA we have some art-making programs for families, teens, adults, and schools, and we are currently experimenting with a Bauhaus Lab project, I look to the grassroots creative efforts of visitors on Flickr and YouTube and artists like Machine Project as inspiration for the possibilities of what could happen creatively in the galleries.

Now it’s your turn. I invite you to share with me your experiences with art making at MoMA or other museums, as your thoughts will continue to challenge and inform my thinking.