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The lights went out in New York City for two days in the summer of 1977, a summer marred also by more murders by the Son of Sam killer and a continuing fiscal crisis. In that time of crisis, privately funded arts groups stepped forward to enrich the city’s public-school programs with art classes taught by working artists. Forty years later, The City and the Young Imagination at the Museum of the City of New York looked back over the work of children in classes sponsored by one such group, Studio in a School (hereafter “Studio”), founded that fall under the leadership of Agnes Gund. (President emerita of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Gund is Studio’s current chair.) Studio teachers, specialists in a variety of visual media, work with students for four or more years of their elementary education. Displayed in a small gallery on the museum’s second floor, The City and the Young Imagination presented works on and of paper, primarily by children in second to fifth grades, from each of New York’s five boroughs. The museum’s curator of architecture and design, Donald Albrecht, centered the exhibition on four visual motifs: cityscapes, bridges, monuments, and places of play. He and EY Zipris, assistant director of the museum’s Frederick A. O. Schwarz Education Center, culled twenty-eight works from Studio’s archives on the basis of their variety, visual impact, and artistic execution. In marking a tradition of arts education in public schools, The City and the Young Imagination revealed an enduring intimacy between these young artists and their city, its immediacy and approachability a common theme.
The pairing of teacher-artists with public-school students yielded playful, but sometimes stark, views of the city, rendered with a clarity of vision and line that was often surprising. Splashed with bright color and imposing shapes, the images were fearless in subject, perspective, and scale, their subjects looming large in child-centered views and imaginings. An East Bronx fourth-grader used pen-and-ink on watercolor to picture an imposing entryway that dwarfed the higher stories of the building towering above. A student in Studio’s teen apprenticeship program—older than most others in this array of largely elementary-schoolers’ work—portrayed bold facades in gleaming bronze and turquoise gouache sharply pared to form dark windows from the black ground behind, a handsome work of strong color deployed by a skilled hand. In a Queens sixth-grader’s vision, the Brooklyn Bridge became a child’s somersault, and a Staten Island second-grader rendered the Statue of Liberty with the capital S of Superman fame on her chest, flame and book in her hands outsized. A Manhattan kindergartner pictured herself jumping rope beside her school building, her teacher’s text below describing the scene, and a self-portrait of a Bronx fourth-grader showed her blindfolded and dreaming, the text below explaining that the blindfold came off at the end of a dreaming game of pin the tail on the donkey.
These young artists portrayed not just what they saw in their city but also what they might have seen from fanciful perches above it. A chorographic map of the East Bronx neighborhood of P.S. 196 was the face of the exhibition. Measuring about three by five feet, this ambitious collage was created by twenty-seven fifth-graders, who placed their school at center and detailed its surrounding buildings, trees, shops, restaurants, and a number-six subway train rolling on elevated tracks (see installation view). Four Staten Island fifth-graders created a smaller collage of skyscraper tops floating unmoored among clouds. In a work from another Queens sixth-grader, a bird’s-eye view captured buildings that sprang upward and outward to greet the viewer, the grouping anchored by a bridge at their base. Within these works and others, space and time collapsed. In one, the sun shone while storm clouds thundered overhead. In another, Coney Island’s rollercoaster fronted a view of game booths, boardwalk, ocean, and sun in images that rose successively, the horizon and sun meeting at top. If these portrayals sat at differing points between fantasy and representation, their subject matter was nonetheless instantly recognizable. They expressed rhythmic repetition, balance, and their own unique outlooks.
The City and the Young Imagination provided visitors with a glimpse of the curricula fostered in Studio classrooms. Elements of line, shadow, contrast, and color play enhanced the compositions on display. Planning and collaboration were also evident. Two six-foot constructions, one of the Empire State Building, the other of the Statue of Liberty, were the focal pieces of the gallery inside, both models constructed in the 2015–16 school year. Liberty’s raised arm, bearing a shiny copper torch, and her spiky crown, atop her head and long neck, suggested separate constructions later joined to create her imposing, chunky appearance. Like the opening collage of the East Bronx composed by P.S. 196, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty were also products of fifth-grade classes. Imaginings in a variety of paper stocks were also encouraged: printed pattern, cut from card, rendered buildings in silhouette, and geometric shapes cut from construction paper built the standing figure of a boy.
If the exhibition showed how children pictured their city, it also beckoned to them as museumgoers. Indeed, the exhibition was curated with the young visitor in mind. Many works hung well below adult eye level. The gallery’s entrances, one a child-size peaked doorway, featured bright yellow lintels and walls. The gallery itself, a small, inviting space, dwarfed neither works nor small viewers. The warm pink-red hue of the middle wall gave the space a youthful spirit that enhanced the large constructions at the center of the gallery. On one visit, this reviewer encountered a toddler who squealed with delight at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, grinning broadly as he scooted toward it.
Taken as a whole, The City and the Young Imagination featured continuity, rather than exceptionality. (A glimpse of works from Studio’s first decade could have amplified that message, but Studio did not archive its work in its early years. The oldest work in the exhibition dated from the 1987–88 academic year.) The featured works displayed neither the skill of select individuals nor virtuoso representational techniques employed by older students. Labels provided names of teachers and students, along with each student’s grade level, school, location, and the academic year. Stories of changed lives or of nurtured talent and artists’ subsequent fame—if they do exist—were not part of the exhibition’s narrative. But if the 1977 crisis in funding for art education in public schools has a familiar ring today, The City and the Young Imagination testified to the tangible products of an art education and the likely continuation of Studio in a School’s mission.
Yet perhaps the most fundamental continuity on display here was a child’s enduring desire to depict visually the world and one’s place in it with tool, mark, and surface. Nearly all works were paper-based, produced with the materials of childhood: cardboard, newsprint, tempera, watercolor, markers. The Statue of Liberty was modeled from papier-mâché, and the bones of the Empire State Building were cardboard boxes. A video accompanying the exhibition offered a glance into a Studio classroom and at the relationship between student and instructor. The film opened with a shot of the classroom’s materials: plastic containers of brushes, construction paper, markers, and colored pens, grouped together with splattered mixing trays that received spoonfuls of thick paint in primary colors. There, small hands did not reach for the tools of digital expression, nor were electronic screens evident. In Studio instruction, nothing stands between brush, paint, and paper. Similarly, in this gallery space of the Museum of the City of New York, the visitor encountered only dimensional, tactile works. Is it hard to imagine the media and products of such a show forty years into the future—or, for that matter, that privately subsidized art instruction in the city’s public schools might persist forty years into the future? Perhaps it is not.
PhD candidate, Bard Graduate Center
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