Children’s Museum of the Arts

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 140 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned “Home Decoration Confusion,” by Ellen Harvey.  A spare modernist dollhouse crammed with fancy wallpapers and chandeliers and such, from the ornamentation exhibit. 

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan

Children's Museum of the Arts, ManhattanThe Children’s Museum of the Arts is my first review of a New York children’s museum. While I like to think I’m unusually immature for my age, I feel I should have an actual member of the intended audience help calibrate my impressions of these places. And so I enlisted the aid of an eight-year-old friend, whom I’ll call “Zed,” and his mom, who kindly visited with me.  Thanks!

Located near Tribeca, the Children’s Museum of the Arts consists of a set of activity spaces arranged around a central open area. Kids have a wide choice of art projects, some of which require signing up in advance, others you can just walk in and do. On the day we visited the art options included:

  • Making miniature clay figures
  • Fun with sound and audio recording
  • Bending wire into words or shapes and then making prints from it
  • Painting wintry scenes
  • Creating stop-motion animation

Helpers for all the activities we did were terrific — patient and engaged and full of fun and helpful ideas when needed.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
The Popular Clay Bar

In addition, there’s a specialized studio just for very young folks, where kids and their caregivers can collaborate.

The museum also has a neat mezzanine space with big windows onto the lobby and facing outside, filled with giant blue foam blocks of all shapes and sizes, where kids can build and destroy and generally rampage to their hearts’ content. I didn’t get the purpose of that at first, except to ensure the mixing of kid germs as much as possible.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
Blocky Chaos

However, Zed observed that he found it valuable. After concentrating on making a lengthy stop-motion video, he needed a place to blow off some steam before he was ready to engage in something else that required focus. So, good job on the museum to have thought of that. However, Zed also pointed out that he thought some kids would spend their whole visit just playing in there, not doing any of the art stuff.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
Space for a Time Out

And finally there are some private rooms where you can book art parties, as well as a “quiet room” with a few picture books, presumably for time outs.

Ornaments (Not the Christmas Kind)

Ornament is Crime, Children's Museum of the ArtsThis place is primarily an activity center; I’m almost a little skeptical of calling it a “museum.” But it does have some art installations. Indeed, the open connector space between the various activity studios housed an exhibit on called “Ornamentation and Other Refrigerator Magnets” by Ellen Harvey. I found it quite clever, although I think it’s a little more to a grown-up’s taste than a kid’s. For example, there’s a witty display of books riffing on modernist architect Adolph Loos’s lecture on “ornament and crime,” perched on the fanciest shelves imaginable.

Children's Museum of the Arts, ManhattanI’d wager that most kids who visit this place don’t give the art a look at all.  But engaging a kid in a conversation about stuff that’s fancy versus stripped down, and why some things are very decorated versus not so much, probably works well. It’s straightforward, and most kids will have some experience of that contrast, and possibly even an opinion about it.

Moreover, I respect the museum for (a) placing the wall texts down at kid-eye-level, (b) not oversimplifying the descriptions too much while (c) including a mini-glossary with each wall caption. Terms explained on various wall texts included “dictator,” “chic,” “hermitage,” “naturalistic,” and “stylized.” It was really well done, and again demonstrates the Children’s Museum curators considering their audience.

Another art installation featured a hallway full of flowers and plants and other organic forms all cut out of denim by British artist Ian Berry. I’m not sure I get it; why denim? But it was rather pretty just the same.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan
Denim Art

A Zed’s Eye View of the Children’s Museum of the Arts

Zed and I discussed his impression of the museum afterwards. He really liked it, and said he both learned stuff (like how tedious it is to make a stop-motion animation) and had fun (particularly in the room of soft bricks).

Zed made several things, including a pastel drawing of a “spider-mobile.” I would’ve thought that as a New Yorker Spider-Man would just take a Lyft or Via where he needs to go, or the subway. But Zed disagrees.  He singled out the art studio as his favorite part, because he liked having a broad choice of materials to work with, and the freedom to create what he wanted to create.

Spider Mobile
“Zed,” “Spider-Mobile Worldwide,” 2018, pastel on paper

His one caveat in terms of recommending the place was that he thought it best for “friends who don’t act like they have ADHD.” An interesting (and deliberate) choice of phrasing, but it conveys his point, and I agree. The CMA demands some focus and concentration from its young visitors, so those who are challenged by that may not find it fun. For most kids, though, it’s a good place to spend an afternoon experimenting with different artistic types and techniques.

I made about 5 seconds of this video (the bit starting at 0:35):

One final note: the Children’s Museum of the Arts lacks a cafe — be sure to bring some juice boxes or a snack or something. Alternately, if your kid, like Zed, is both sufficiently mature and obsessed with cars, there’s a very nearby Joe Coffee located inside the Cadillac showroom. So kids (or grown-ups, even) can ogle some extremely fancy cars while enjoying a post-museum snack.

Children's Museum of the Arts, Manhattan

For Reference:

Address 103 Charlton Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $12
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