Creativity
This Contemporary Art Museum Is Run by Kids
Entrance to KSMoCA. Photo by Anke Schuettler. Courtesy of KSMoCA.

Entrance to KSMoCA. Photo by Anke Schuettler. Courtesy of KSMoCA.

At the KSMoCA International Art Fair this past August, the first clue that this was no ordinary art fair was the size of the booths. Painted and spackled by students from Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Oregon, the stands were just slightly taller than they were. The fair presented artwork from 17 international exhibitors in the school cafeteria, where on a normal school day, kids can be found eating pizza or attending assembly.

Over the course of the weekend-long event, attendees could browse and purchase artwork, watch performances from local musicians, and participate in a mini-recreation of artist Pedro Reyes’s interactive performance work Sanatorium.  

As hosts of the fair, students had various responsibilities. Some were tasked with setup, including creating and hanging signage; others engaged with the public on behalf of a gallery, like the Blue Sky Gallery, where students had curated the selection of art on display. Some students chose to create spontaneous work to sell on the spot, while others spoke in discussion panels, responding to questions about being artists and art-fair organizers.  

Making signage for the KSMoCA International Art Fair. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Making signage for the KSMoCA International Art Fair. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Making booth signs for the KSMoCA Internationl Art Fair. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Making booth signs for the KSMoCA Internationl Art Fair. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

“It was about valuing the kids, putting them in this role that normally adults would be in and treating it like it was a normal thing,” says Harrell Fletcher, an artist, founder of the MFA program in Art & Social Practice at Portland State University, and co-director of the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA). “The hope is that these little moments will be significant to them.”

Hosted by arts nonprofit Converge45, the fair was organized by KSMoCA, a kid-run museum that was realized in collaboration with Portland State’s Art & Social Practice students. Since 2014, KSMoCA’s official home has been at MLK Jr. School, a public school with students from kindergarten through eighth grade. PSU students work with students there to curate exhibitions and create new works, often in a single hallway between the cafeteria and gym.

KSMoCA puts a particular emphasis on introducing students to contemporary art and living artists. Arts education is woefully behind the times, Fletcher notes, when Andy Warhol is the last contemporary artist most people can name. If the kids are going to grow up to be artists, they’re going to be contemporary ones, he posits. So rather than gluing googly eyes or tracing their hands to make turkeys, kids of KSMoCA are exploring, from a young age, the endless possibilities of artmaking. They’re trained to push boundaries, even when it comes to what art can be.

“Contemporary art rejects notions of how art has always been seen, and who gets to call things art,” says PSU art professor Lisa Jarrett, who is co-director of KSMoCA. “So who gets to identify art is really up to you. That’s what we’d like―to get the kids to feel more and more empowered in that way.”

At KSMoCA, as kids are empowered to be the co-creators of an art space they walk through everyday―a museum of sorts where they aren’t told to be quiet or keep their hands to themselves―art stops being a weird or inaccessible thing. It opens the doors to a life of expression, or better yet, a career in the arts.

While the program certainly serves to expose kids to contemporary art and art institutions, it also demystifies how the art world works. “All we’re really doing is opening up these different roles in the art world to the kids,” says Jarrett. “We’re not just telling them about the art world. They’re in it. That’s what makes it accessible.”

Bea working the SANATORIUM booth at the KSMoCA International Art Fair. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Bea working the SANATORIUM booth at the KSMoCA International Art Fair. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Student drawings made during one on one session. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Student drawings made during one on one session. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

The summer art fair program, which was led by two Portland State alumni, Roz Crews and Amanda Leigh Evans, had taught the kids how to be gallerists, sales assistants, curators, and more, through over 60 hours of special training. On a field trip to the Seattle Art Fair, a few kids practiced pricing paintings with works that had been created through a collaboration between artist Chris Johanson, whose graffiti and painting blends abstraction with human figures, and fifth grader Michael Esperanza.

Back on his own turf at MLK Jr., Esperanza sold the collaborative paintings from an art fair booth, telling anyone who’d listen about Johanson’s art and what a cool guy he was.

“It just touched me once I got to be able to work with him. He taught me art is not about what you see, it’s about what you feel,” Esperanza says. “He also taught me how to make a good nose.”

Facilitating these relationships between artists and kids―and treating them as peers―is at the heart of KSMoCA. Programming runs the gamut from a public lecture series, to one-on-one mentoring sessions between MLK Jr. students and PSU students, to pairing internationally renowned contemporary artists with classes to co-create public art exhibitions three times per year.

KSMoCA is also mindful of who is usually represented in the art world, and who isn’t. In the past few years, studies have found that in the U.S., four out of five working artists are white; curators are overwhelmingly white; and people of color represent 28 percent of museum staff―but mostly as janitors and security guards.

Cognizant of MLK Jr.’s diverse student population, Fletcher and Jarrett invite mainly artists of color to the school, so the kids can see real artists with real careers who look like them.

Earlier this year, artist Chitra Ganesh hosted a workshop with fourth and fifth graders around the theme of “Everyday Superheroes.” She taught them about how comics and Hindu folklore influence her own practice, and showed them photographs of activists in action from Standing Rock to India; then, they enthusiastically got to drawing. The results ranged from frying pan-wielding supermoms to hybrid lion-Godzilla creatures.

MLK Jr. student Joyce with her drawing at Chitra Ganesh's 'On Moonless Nights' exhibit. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

MLK Jr. student Joyce with her drawing at Chitra Ganesh's 'On Moonless Nights' exhibit. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Chitra Ganesh's 'On Moonless Nights' exhibit. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

Chitra Ganesh's 'On Moonless Nights' exhibit. Photo courtesy of KSMoCA.

These drawings later formed the basis of an exhibition held at the school. PSU students translated their illustrations to wall-sized artworks in the KSMoCA hallway, using a projector. “It’s more important to stay true to the drawing,” Fletcher advised students as they worked. “Don’t straighten out any lines.”

On the night of the exhibition’s opening, while the school’s jazz band played and grape juice flowed, the kids acted as docents. They guided visitors from the community through the show, introduced their own artwork, and pointed out the use of collage in Ganesh’s “On Moonless Nights” series, which was displayed side-by-side with their own pieces.

One small boy was showing his family around when he suddenly made a beeline to a drawing of an abstract red figure wearing headphones, titled Rap Mom. “Look!” he said as he pointed at it. “That’s mine!”

Celeste Hamilton Dennis