Hands-On Art at the Brooklyn Museum’s New Education Center


It could easily be an alien civilization: Its citizens have no gender, no organized religion, no formal government. They inhabit a lush ecosystem of candy-colored vegetation, where plants can grow infinitely tall. Residents travel on driverless, ring-shaped buses that hover in the atmosphere. A single year lasts more than two centuries.

Yet as extraterrestrial as this environment sounds, you can soon encounter it in Brooklyn. Called “Artland,” it is an ever-expanding fantasy world and traveling museum exhibition designed by children, molded from modeling clay and overseen by the internationally renowned artist Do Ho Suh, whose two young daughters conceived it. On Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m., “Artland” will welcome the public to a free celebration of the newly renovated Toby Devan Lewis Education Center at the Brooklyn Museum, where visitors can sculpt imaginary flora and fauna to add to the show’s phantasmagoric jungles.

In some ways, the installation symbolizes the new center, which aims to help visitors find their own pathways into art.

“It’s all about world building, right?” Shamilia McBean Tocruray, the museum’s co-director of education, said in an interview. “All about creating possibilities, and really akin to the invitation that we’re making to our community to say: ‘Come in here. What can we make together?’”

Titled “Artland: An Installation by Do Ho Suh and Children,” the show inaugurates the Norman M. Feinberg Gallery, just inside the entrance of the redesigned education center. The 9,500-square-foot wing also includes three art-making studios equipped with audiovisual technology, as well as education offices that foster collaboration.

“Essentially, it was a gut renovation,” said Stephen Yablon, whose firm, Stephen Yablon Architecture, designed the $9 million project, which he called an “art connector.”

“The concept was to kind of build a space that would be a tool to connect people to learning about art, experiencing art and to the museum,” Yablon said in an interview. He added, “The way to do that was to make it very welcoming when you came in. So you immediately come into a public space, not a corridor.”

Although the first-floor education wing had a gallery previously, it was devoted exclusively to the work of participants in the museum’s programs. “Artland,” on view through May 5, represents a new, additional initiative: to present an annual interactive exhibition led by a world-class artist.

Few shows are more interactive than this one, which began in 2016 on the dining table in Suh’s London household, where his older daughter started building a universe she named Artland, inhabited by cat-shaped creatures called Slimes. When her little sister grew big enough, she, too, got involved, and as they expanded their invented cosmos, which Suh eventually moved to his studio, the little girls wrote an entire mythology for it.

“I called myself art assistant to my daughters,” Suh said in a video call. If they had difficulty adding clay creations to Artland, he used recycled materials to build a simple framework that allowed it to extend from a table’s surface to a wall or a floor.

Suh, whose work is in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection and those of other institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, said he felt sad when the girls, now 13 and 10, began to outgrow their creation. But he saw a way to preserve it when the Buk-Seoul Museum of Art in his native South Korea invited him to do a show for its children’s gallery, where “Artland” became a participatory exhibition.

“That was a huge hit,” Suh said. “Over 100,000 children came to the show and contributed something.”

In Brooklyn, “Artland” will start on a small scale, with just three of the world’s pre-existing islands placed atop small tables. But the gallery offers many more surfaces of different heights for children to expand the project, as well as a video about it and a pamphlet that explains its taxonomy.

When young New Yorkers discover “Artland,” Suh said he hoped for a result even “more audacious.”

“I hope that they feel the ownership of this,” he added. “And they feel like they are the artists.”

Museum executives said they hoped visitors would respond that way to the entire renovation. Unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new 81st Street Studio, which caters just to children, the Brooklyn Museum’s education center will serve more than 50,000 visitors, young and old, who participate in its offerings annually. These range from Stroller Tours, for those 2 and under, to the A.R.T. (Art, Research and Teaching) Guide volunteer program, which includes many retirees.

And while the Met attracts numerous tourists, the Brooklyn Museum’s visitor population is “very much still anchored in local Brooklyn communities,” Adjoa Jones de Almeida, the museum’s deputy director for learning and social impact, said in an interview. But the education wing, which had not been renovated since opening in 1980, was dark, cramped and closed off.

“There was always this conversation of, like, ‘Is it a coincidence that Brooklyn Museum is the space that serves the most BIPOC audiences and has the shabbiest spaces around of any encyclopedic institution’?” Jones de Almeida said, using an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. “That was always a really hard thing to hear.”

As museum officials began to prepare for the institution’s 200th anniversary next fall, they wanted a renovation that reflected its legacy as a training ground for artists like Lynda Benglis, Robert Smithson and Richard Mayhew. In addition to designing an open plan with flexible seating, the architects raised ceilings and gave the education center glass doors. Installing high windows in two of the art studios lets in natural light for the first time.

“There was a lot of talk about visibility, a lot of talk about access,” said Kenneth Kurtz, the museum’s staff architect. The first studio has side-by-side sinks at two levels; the lower one can accommodate a child or a visitor using a wheelchair.

The redesign also includes a room for the museum’s guides and its teen programs. Equipped with a colorful couch and dishware for snacking, as well as tables and workstations, this space is “more of a hangout,” Yablon said.

In conjunction with the center’s opening, the museum, which has no fixed admission — the suggested ticket price is $20 for adults and free for anyone under 20 — is expanding its schedule to feature drop-in public programs every weekend. Visitors to this Saturday’s celebration can enjoy a photo booth, a graffiti wall and a zine project, as well as “Artland.”

“Maybe you’ve never done a painting class in your life, you’ve never thought about sculpture in your life,” Jones de Almeida said, “but you have a place in this neighborhood that is accessible, both physically and financially, where you get to grow that skill set and nurture that skill set. That is really kind of critical to the visioning for this renovation, this idea that we are all creative.”



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