When the Children’s Museum of the Arts moved to a new building in 2011, it wasn’t just a change of address. In its new home, the museum has reinvigorated its mission to serve children of all backgrounds – and visitors are responding in numbers that have exceeded all expectations.
In the new building’s first year, the audience more than doubled its reach of 54,000, surpassed a target of 75,000, and hit about 117,000. The museum — a NYSCA grantee through our Museum and Arts Education Programs — expanded its programming with new cultural festivals, teen and tween initiatives, and partnerships. Plus, it made good on its goal of becoming a model of inclusion by creating free programs for underserved communities and championing diverse artists.
Last year, attendance reached 135,000. Over 38,000 were served at no charge, including children on the autism spectrum, children with disabilities, children at Title 1 schools, children in homeless shelters, and families within the NYC foster care system. CMA also works with 150 NYC schools.
“The mission of CMA has always been to make the transformative power of the arts available to ALL,” says Executive Director Barbara Hunt McLanahan.
“Children naturally want to play, talk, create, and collaborate with other children. Sitting at a group table making art is like breaking bread. When we are all doing the same thing, we see how our children are the same even though they may look different, and their joyfulness engenders a shared pride (and sometimes empathy for melt-down moments) among their grown-ups.”
Throughout the museum, children work alongside professional artists, including visual artists as well as actors, singers and improv practitioners.
“Our side-by-side teaching philosophy is key to our distinctiveness,” says McLanahan, noting that the format allows children to view themselves alongside professionals, peers with varied perspectives, and in connection with their caregivers who can encourage their creativity.
Founded in 1988 by Kathleen Schneider, CMA focuses on arts education for children aged 1 – 15 and their families. Children who visit the museum view art exhibitions and create their own artworks.
Popular programs include GirlStories, which promotes young women’s achievements in filmmaking, illustration and other related skills; Media Lab, which teaches stop-motion animation and live-action film to grades 1-12; and the Young Artist Kollective, which gives tweens and teens ages 12 – 15 free access to the museum and its art making studios as well as technical guidance from CMA’s Teaching Artists. Art Slams for teens are held monthly.
Also unique to the museum are its cultural festivals, each highlighting a different world culture and showcasing partnerships. For example, visitors can learn folk music from the Irish Arts Center and Bollywood moves from the Anja Dance Company. In 2015, the museum increased its annual festival offerings from 4 to 10.
This was one of many changes to the Museum’s programming that followed McLanahan’s appointment in February 2013 and a strategic plan implemented in 2015 – and led to its dramatic audience expansion. The plan encompassed new programming and outreach as well as a marketing analysis and new digital marketing strategy.
Among new initiatives was a program enabling Title 1 Schools to bring classes free of charge, and free family passes for every child that attends in this program. This and other free programs were subsidized by government and foundation funding.
Art for All
In addition to growing audience numbers, CMA has also worked to diversify its audience by ensuring that all visitors are both represented and served by the museum. CMA’s exhibits feature 55% women, 23% artists of color, and 3% artists with HIV/AIDS. (CMA also ensures diversity in its staffing by reaching out to artists, arts administrators, and non-profits to widely distribute job descriptions when positions are open.)
“Our goal is to ensure that children and their families see work which reflects their world view,” says McLanahan.
“As a museum administrator, I have another agenda – which is to show museums that if we, a small children’s museum of art, can organize high quality contemporary art exhibits that include [this level of diversity], there is no reason that they cannot. In 2017, there is simply no excuse for exclusionary practices. The Internet allows us to do far-reaching research and break out of historically limiting networks.”
The museum’s focus on equal access to culture is particularly noteworthy when it comes to serving children of all abilities. CMA offers classes for children on the autism spectrum, programs for children with physical disabilities to engage with able-bodied children, and — most recently, in 2015 –Art For All, which enables any child with a disability to visit CMA for free on any given day with their caregiver following pre-registration.
“For CMA, inclusivity means ALWAYS having programs for children with special needs,” says McLanahan.
All staff members go through professional development to ensure that they create programs that allow children of different abilities to participate equally and feel welcome. The organization then shares its expertise by leading workshops with museums, schools, libraries and social service agencies.
As a result of CMA’s attention to inclusion, no matter what a child’s age, background, economic status, or ability, he or she should feel welcome in the museum and, ultimately, engaged with the arts at large.
“We can introduce children and families to the experience of visiting a museum, and enjoying cultural participation,” says McLanahan. “As they grow up, they can branch out with increased independence to enjoy all of the galleries and museums that New York has to offer.”
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