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Like Kids in an Eye Candy Store

In an effort to make art more accessible to all ages, LACMA is unveiling a gallery designed to engage youngsters, and keep Mom and Dad interested as well.


It's late afternoon a couple of weeks ago at LACMA West, and two young kids are passing time waiting for their mothers by swinging on swings in the middle of an art show.

Psychedelic images flow across a screen in front of them and loud tones emanate from speakers just above--all triggered by the duo's irregular to-and-fro motion. It's a hypnotic combination, and the kids are mesmerized. For a moment. Then, in typical kid style, their attention moves on, and they begin to make shadow puppets for each other from behind the screen. Then they run into a nearby pillow room to punch some punching bags and throw themselves off a ladder. And then they're off to something else.

This is not business as usual at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and these two kids not only know it, they have no problem figuring out exactly how to relate.

It's fun.

At the time of the kids' run-through, installation of "Made in California: NOW" was only about half finished, and as construction continued all around, Robert L. Sain stood by and laughed with glee. The former director of San Diego's much praised Children's Museum came to LACMA just over a year ago with a mission to create a new kind of exhibition space for children of all ages.

He said he would employ artists to make real art that would engage both kids and their parents. He hoped to generate new ways of thinking not only about art but also about family activity and about museums as institutions for learning. LACMA provided Sain with 10,000 square feet of open galleries and the charge to create his first show as part of the interdisciplinary exhibition "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000," which opens later this fall in the museum's Hammer and Anderson buildings across Ogden Street.

Today, Sain's new gallery, dubbed LACMALab, opens formally to the public with new work by a diverse group of 11 artists--nine from Los Angeles and two from San Diego--working in virtually every possible medium. Many of these artists are very well known in the art world, but none is known for making work specifically for children. For the artists, as for LACMA itself, Sain's vision required a leap of faith.

The goal is to break down barriers and make art more accessible, and the museum has chosen to do it not just in word but also in action: LACMALab will be up for an entire year and is free to all. And as an extra bonus, anyone who visits the space at LACMA West will get a pass to visit the rest of the museum free also.

This show is big and noisy and has lots of touchable and climbable elements, along with a handful of quieter moments. But if Chuck E. Cheese or the Discovery Zone come to mind, that's not Sain's intention. This is not just a place to send kids off into their own frenetic world, he says. It's a place where children can play and learn about art and, if all goes as planned, grown-ups can share that experience. There's not only stuff to look at and toy with, there's also a studio for making artworks, inspired--or not--by what's in the gallery.

LACMALab and its maiden voyage with "Made in California: NOW" represents a new approach to what museums are about, Sain says. "Can we develop an experiential installation that really engages adult and child equally? So that it's not just a place where kids are having a ball and the adults are bored witless? Or vice versa?" A place that, in the words of LACMA-Lab's mission statement "blurs the boundaries between the exhibition, the artists' commissions, the studio workshops, and in turn, aspires to transform the relationship between the museum and the next generation."

It is, says Sain with an almost missionary zeal, "a quest."

The artists each were given a stipend as well as funds to cover materials and were asked to develop new work for kids (primarily elementary to middle school age) in keeping with the rest of their own artworks. Accordingly, each approached the project differently.

Here, in their own words, six talk about the experience. In addition to the following, the exhibition includes work by Eleanor Antin, Michael Asher, Martin Kersels, Dave Muller and Erika Rothenberg.


Victor Estrada, 44, "Reflections on Poetry"

Best known for his surrealist cartoon-like sculptures, Estrada has created a sandbox on the north lawn of LACMA West in the shape of a figure in a Jackson Pollock painting. Forty red playground balls scattered on the grounds also are part of the work. Inside LACMALab, a Pollock painting is on view, as well as a display of Estrada's drawings. There's also a sand table and a place where kids can make their own cutouts.

Museums basically tell you what you're supposed to be looking at and thinking about. I wanted to give the children space to use imagination rather than to control it.

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