Explore the World’s Largest Collection of Children’s Art
In January 1990, when Kathleen Schneider and her staff sent out an international call for children’s art for a fledgling museum, they hadn’t even secured an exhibition space yet. They did have a P.O. box, an office in the form of Schneider’s Greenwich Village apartment, and a name—the Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA).
Mail soon began to pour in from across the U.S. and overseas. The art arrived “in all shapes and sizes—in thin and fat tubes, in wooden crates, and in flat envelopes of different papers with colorful stamps,” wrote then-exhibition director Rita London in a catalogue essay. One particularly large trunk had to be specially retrieved from U.S. customs.
“We were bombarded with things,” Schneider, CMA’s founder and then-executive director, told me recently. “People were so much more interested than we thought that they would be. We were even getting things from Lebanon, when there was a war going on.”
They received nearly 1,800 artworks from children between the ages of two and 12, from more than 50 countries. A group of advisors—including representatives from the Leo Castelli Gallery and Harlem School for the Arts—would eventually narrow down the submissions to 75 works for display. The resulting traveling exhibition, which first appeared in January 1991 at A.I.R Gallery in Soho, was titled “A Child’s World.”
This marked the beginning of CMA’s permanent collection, which has continued to expand since 1991. The museum today bills its collection of children’s art as the largest in the world, composed of more than 2,000 paintings and drawings that date as far back as the 1930s. And that’s not counting the 4,000 children’s films created by CMA-goers over the last five years, which are currently archived online.
But the 1,800 works collected for “A Child’s World” in 1991 (now referred to as the “International Collection”) serve as the core of the museum’s holdings. Today, works from the the collection go out on loan to other institutions, and supplement shows at CMA in New York. In the museum’s current exhibition, “Weather or Not, That is the Question,” two children’s works appear alongside art by contemporary adult artists including Nnenna Okore and Blane De St. Croix.
“The international nature of the collection is important,” CMA executive director Barbara Hunt McLanahan explained. “I had chills when I saw one of the works that was picked for the weather show, because it’s by a child from Syria.” The painting, by 11-year-old Arif Roiz, depicts a long-necked dinosaur amidst storm clouds and bolts of yellow lightning.
As the CMA has grown more established—it currently calls a 10,000-square-foot building on Charlton Street home—its permanent collection has only grown. Several private collectors of children’s art, often former teachers, have donated their works to the museum. A number of these pieces were made in the Works Progress Administration’s Community Art Centers in New York, which employed artists to instruct children in topics ranging from landscape drawing to woodworking to theater.
One such artist was Leon Bibel, a Polish immigrant who taught printmaking to students in the Bronx. Another, Joseph Solman, worked alongside Mark Rothko and Ben-Zion in WPA programs and collected art by children that he and others taught during the ’30s and ’40s.
One of the peculiarities of the CMA’s collection is that many of its works come with little or no biographical information on the artist. Occasionally, there are moments of rediscovery, when an artist returns to the museum decades later in search of their creation. Jil Weinstock, director of fine arts and curator at CMA, recalled an art teacher from the Bronx who once arrived with three former students in tow. These men were now in their sixties, she said, “searching through the collection and trying to recall which works were theirs.”
Sometimes, however, it’s the staff that seeks out the artists. Early in her tenure at CMA, Hunt McLanahan researched several children whose work appeared in the WPA collections. She located an Arnold Schickman, the name of a child who painted a portrait of Janet Welch in the 1930s, but found that the man had passed a year earlier. So she emailed his daughter, asking if her father had lived in New York at the time the work was made. The daughter emailed back and said yes, he had—and, in fact, that he’d kept painting his whole life.
Historical works from the 1930s, like Schickman’s, have also served as inspiration for newer additions to the permanent collection. A 2010 watercolor by 11-year-old Pia Mileaf-Patel is part of the Young Artists Residency Collection, in which children were shown pieces from CMA’s WPA art collections and then tasked with creating their own works that reflect their time and place. Mileaf-Patel painted a brightly hued bookshelf with volumes of Harry Potter and Twilight, noting “that in the future nobody would have a big wall of books. Not even me. Seeing books will be like seeing a typewriter.”
Since 2013, the museum has paused its formal accession of physical works due to a shortage of storage space. They are working to secure a grant that will allow them to properly archive the collection, both physically and in an online database.
“Some of the pieces I’m challenged by are the ones on paper plates or non-archival material, maybe tempera paint that’s kind of chipping off, things like that,” Weinstock said. Other works have buckled, she explained, because so much paint was applied. “So we need to look at how to deal with those tricky pieces.”
“We do have a pretty major task ahead of us. It’s uncharted territory, too,” Hunt McLanahan added. “How do we assess the works and catalogue them, particularly when some of them have nothing, no name?”
For their part, the CMA’s insurers do not consider the collection to be art. “According to them, they're value-less because they’re unknown children’s artwork,” Hunt McLanahan said. “They’re considered ephemera, and they’re insured like our office files. How can you evaluate that? The Met has all their assets on their books, we don’t have anything.”
In many ways, CMA is forging its own path as an institution. “Even when you look at children’s museums as a whole, we really don’t fit that model,” Weinstock said. “Because children’s museums across the nation always have a focus—history or language or math. And for us it’s the arts.” Even among the handful of children’s art museums, she noted, none operate in quite the same way as CMA. “I guess we are the model,” she said, smiling.