“What would you like to draw today?”
Posed one of several drawing stations at the Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA) new exhibit, Art Forms: 75 Years of Arts Education. The show opened Thursday at CMA, which last fall moved to its larger space on Charlton Street in West Soho (near the family-friendly PrinceDougal enclave we wrote about last year).
The exhibit juxtaposes antique and contemporary works by children and art educators, demonstrating what makes the museum visit special. Included are nine works of Henry Schaefer-Simmern and other never-displayed works from the collections of art educators Leon Bibel and Sona Kludjian.
A vocal critic of force-feeding art to children, Schaefer-Simmern advocated that children should develop intuitively on their own and at their own pace rather than copying master works. His works in this exhibit illustrate the stages of artistic progression he identified in his 1948 book The Unfolding of Artistic Activity, evolving from scribbles to organized scribbles, then circle-and-stick portrayals of the human figure and confused attempts at direction, until finally, perspective.
Scattered around the room are interactive exhibits — among them an ornamental “poetree” and a loom that folds up into a wall hanging — as well as the drawing stations. Voices and laughter abounded from the studio spaces and energy-expending ball pen, upstairs and around the corner. Though they were guided by teaching artists, the children were clearly in charge of the room.
“How did you do it? What did you do first, second, last?” the drawing station pamphlet continued. Like Schaefer-Simmern, CMA aims to celebrate the artist in every child by giving them the opportunity to take command.
The exhibit’s collection of ten lithographs by Alfred Cohen highlight the impact of opportunity and mentorship. Thanks to an arts community center funded by the Works Progress Administration as part of FDR’s New Deal, Cohen would cross the street every day to make art with Metropolitan-featured Leon Bibel and soon became a prodigy, receiving critical acclaim by the age of eight.
CMA is one of the few interactive children’s museums geared specifically towards art for art’s sake. Staring at a blank canvas or paper, the museum maintains, is a highly self-reflective process that teaches problem-solving and dedication.
Indeed, the children we saw ordering up modeling clay at CMA’s clay bar with the facility of seasoned bar-goers seem to have learned one important life-skill already.
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