CMA Executive Director Barbara Hunt McLanahan on Standout Works and the Transformative Power of the Arts

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Oct 28, 2016 10:10PM

Since 1988, the Children's Museum of the Arts has been dedicated to bringing high-quality arts education to children throughout New York City. In anticipation of their Art Auction on Wednesday, November 9th, we spoke with Executive Director Barbara Hunt McLanahan on their history, artwork highlights, and standout projects for the organization.

Image courtesy of Will Ellis and Children's Museum of the Arts

Artsy: Can you start by giving us a bit of background on the Children's Museum of the Arts' history and mission? What are some personal highlights from your tenure as Executive Director? 

Barbara Hunt McLanahan: CMA was founded in 1988 by Kathleen Schneider in SoHo. In the 28 years since, we have remained a downtown SoHo institution, moving to Charlton Street at Hudson in 2011. Our mission has remained the same, although worded differently - “to introduce the transformative power of the arts to all children and their families, through side-by-side workshops with professional artists.” The key points are that we believe that the arts are transformative and build self-confidence, and that they should be available to all children and families regardless of socio-economic class. Side-by-side, non-judgmental art making encourages the celebration of individual identity, alongside empathy and respect for difference, for others who look different and who express themselves differently. 

For me, there are highlights every day, when I see children aged 1 - 15 fully engaged in looking at and being inspired by contemporary art, then going to our three studios to make something for themselves with confidence and purpose. Other highlights are when artists that I respect, like Jenny Holzer, Jean Shin, Vanessa German, Fred Tomaselli, Gary Simmons, Ed Rushca, Hank Willis Thomas, Susan Stockwell (there are too many to name!) agree to show with us, thereby validating the work that we do. I love showing artists around the museum, as they understand more than anyone else the magic of CMA and the joy of seeing the art lightbulb go on for the children and families we serve.

Installation view of artwork by Michael Kagan in Mission to Space, Courtesy of Will Ellis and Children's Museum of the Arts

A: What are some of the specific programs or exhibitions that will be funded by this year's Benefit?

BHM: The benefit specifically raises funds that allow us to provide all of our Community Programs for free. In the last three years we have grown our free programs from approximately 17,000 underserved children and family-members per year to over 38,000 in the last year, out of a total audience of 134,000. We provide free arts education workshops for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, children with disabilities and their siblings, children in Title 1 Schools, in transitional housing or homeless shelters, and families in the social welfare system working to stay together or to reunify. We run free programs for tweens and teens in Grades 6 though 9, and a specialist program, GirlStories, for young women working in animation, graphic novel and film. Our commitment to access for all means that we have Pay-As-You-Wish admission on Thursday afternoons, and free programs on Governors Island on summer weekends. We are proud to be the first museum in NYC offering completely free access to the museum to children with a disability plus one caregiver on any day that we are open - not limited to special one-off, programs. This requires ongoing professional development in Universal Design for our Teaching Artists! CMA is the “little engine that can” - we have an incredible, dedicated staff but not enough resources to do what we would like, and need to do.

A: Can you select a few artworks from this year's auction that especially stand out to you? 

BHM: I love the Marc Dennis piece, and the fact that it was the piece from a sell-out series (“Bling, Bling”) that he kept for his wife. When one of our Co-Chairs, Steven Perelman, asked him if he would support CMA, Marc and his wife agreed to donate this special piece to us. It’s a marker of the amazing generosity of artists and a moving testament to CMA’s work and mission.  Another piece is by an artist whose work I have loved since I came to the US in 1996. Adam Fuss has given us a piece from the series “My Ghost” from 1999 in response to a personal request from one of our artist Co-Chairs, Andrew Zuckerman. Adam is a very private artist, and I was completely floored when I heard of this incredible gift. We recently worked with Isca Greenfield-Sanders in collaboration with Green Below 14 and SmartSpaces, so Isca’s donation is especially meaningful.  

Installation view of artwork by Jean Shin in Game On!, Courtesy of Will Ellis and Children's Museum of the Arts

A: Can you tell us about this year's honored artist Meghan Boody? What was the selection criteria? What about her works aligns with your mission? 

BHM: A few years ago, we began the tradition of honoring artists who had significantly helped CMA fulfill its mission. Meghan is our third honoree, following William Wegman and Christine Sciulli. Meghan’s work was included in our exhibition “Far, Far Away,” and in that year Meghan hosted a studio visit for our Director’s Circle. Subsequently she organized a complex workshop at our Spring Family Day benefit whereby children chose to dress up and be photographed as avatars with fantastical animals in magical landscapes. It was one of our most successful workshops and families are still talking about it! Meghan’s work involves staged scenes with child and adult actors, manipulated imagery, and elaborate narratives with female protagonists. Much of CMA’s work revolves around story-telling, so it was a natural fit. Our audiences relate to Meghan’s work, and it allowed us a lot of freedom for interpretation and inspiration. 

A: Who are a few of the more emerging artists in this year's auction that collectors may not be familiar with but should be watching? 

BHM: Frank Moore once told me that “an artist is always emerging - I don’t think I have emerged yet.” This from an established, internationally renowned painter who had been in the Whtiney Biennial. Artists who may be lesser known to watch include Austin Thomas who gave a beautiful, joyful piece from her recent Guttenberg Arts residency, Leah Oates, Stephen Antonson, Gail LeBoff, Robb Putnam, Eric Rhein, and Nikki Rosato, amongst others. More established artists include Aziz + Cucher, Bastienne Schmidt, Fritz Chesnut, Rico Gatson, Russel Maltz, Guy Richards Smit, Jason Middlebrook, and Ethan Murrow.  Why is Jessica Rankin so recognized and collected in Europe, yet lesser known in the US? Her work is phenomenal. I am only scratching the surface. I am happy to talk to any collector to help give more information!

Installation view of Sew What?, Courtesy of Will Ellis and Children's Museum of the Arts

A: Looking to 2017, are there any exhibitions or programs you can tell us about that you are particularly looking forward to? 

BHM: Our exhibition “Weather or Not, That is the Question” scheduled for Spring 2017 will be stunning. Artists to date include Kim Abeles, Matthew Albanese, Suzanne Anker, Blane De St Croix, Sandy Gellis, Nathalie Meibach, and Virginia Wagner. In Summer 2017, we are excited to be working with guest curators Renee Ricardo and Paul Laster on a show tentatively titled “Maker Maker!” Watch this space!

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