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UP FRONT: WITH THE KIDS

They're patrons too

Forget the sitter. Art lovers are bringing their boys and girls to the gallery.

April 06, 2006|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

JUST as legendary Los Angeles performance group Shrimps are about to start their most recent show at L.A. Contemporary Exhibitions, or LACE, program coordinator Karl Erickson and executive director Carol Stakenas step into the space wearing slightly worried looks. Hooks hang from the ceiling, from which the art ensemble intends to suspend large pieces of furniture. The pair eyeball four children sitting on pillows right down front.

"The Shrimps' performance is going to involve a lot of movement, and things could go flying," Erickson says. "We are a little worried about the children. We ask that you keep them close by or hold them on your laps."

True enough, during the performance a wooden chair crashes down on artist Weba Garretson, bloodying her face, and when Martin Kersels performs a piece in which he balances on a wooden stool and then chops its legs off with a hatchet, the kids are peppered with wood chips. Much to their amazement and delight.

Up until a few years ago, the presence of children in art galleries and performance spaces wouldn't have been an issue -- because there weren't any. They weren't prohibited per se, but they were simply seldom seen. The message was that art was for adults. But today's parents bring their children everywhere, and as more art lovers, collectors and artists themselves have kids, it has become perfectly normal to see little ones at openings.

"Many of the artists that are following the program have families, and feel that these experiences are something they want their children to have," says Stakenas, pointing out that Kersels' child was one of those present. She also says that the increased interaction of families fits well with her goal of creating "cross-generational interest."

On a weekend night when the galleries are having openings on Chinatown's Chung King Road, kids are dancing to DJs and frolicking in the open public space of its pedestrian zone. Same at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, or the gallery complex at 6150 Wilshire in the Miracle Mile.

"I'll walk out in the courtyard or I'll look around in the gallery, and there will be a dozen small children," says Bob Gunderman, co-owner of Acme Gallery in the 6150 complex.

"It's just that our peer group, everybody's sort of in their 30s and 40s now, and have started having children," adds Gunderman, who is 43. He points out that artist Monique Pietro, who shows with Acme, has three kids, and that Chris Finley, who is currently showing there, has two.

"To me, it's kind of part of a good education. Not to sound uppity about it," says artist Renee Petropoulos, whose 7-year-old twin girls were at the Shrimps performance. "I firmly believe that all people should be mindful of the spaces they're in and the conditions of those spaces, no matter if they're adults or kids. And I've seen adults behave worse than kids in many of these situations."

Petropoulos is quick to point out that this doesn't mean the art has to be child-safe, either in form or content. It's the parents' job to know how to behave and to gauge the content. Experiences specifically for kids are available elsewhere, like at the L.A. County Museum of Art's LACMA Lab, whose 2003 version she helped design.

Gallery shows are simply not meant to be that kind of entertainment, says Rosamund Felsen, a longtime gallery owner in Bergamot Station. Even though many artworks are meant to be interactive, it's not an arcade or a playground. Felsen recounts a recent incident in Detroit, where a 12-year-old visitor to the Detroit Institute of Arts stuck chewing gum on a 1963 painting by Helen Frankenthaler.

"The minute I see some toddlers coming in, when they're just on foot and their parents do not have them by the hand, I leap out of my chair and stand there looking very stern," she says. "I have to. We don't own these works. We are responsible for anything that happens to them."

Gunderman says that Acme hasn't changed the content of any of its shows.

"Kurt Kauper did all these frontal nude paintings of Cary Grant, but it wasn't so much the children that were having problems with it as much as it was the adults," he says. "A lot of adults were really troubled and didn't want to remember Cary Grant that way."

Nor do some artists want their work recontextualized by the presence of children. Artworks that use children's toys or deal with childhood issues can be changed when viewers see them through a child's eyes.

PERHAPS even more surprising, then, is the idea that some art collectors have started considering the reactions of their children before purchasing works. Collector Fred Reisz, 42, says he enjoys taking his 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter to galleries, and will sometimes gauge his own interest in a piece by how they react.

"I was at a gallery one day and my son reacted to a sculpture by an artist named Sean Duffy. It's a music box sculpture. And he liked it so much, I bought it for the family," Reisz says.

Similarly, he bought a Jennifer Steinkamp piece after his kids responded overwhelmingly to a work she was showing in a gallery.

Whether their parents are buying work, the number of kids in galleries is growing, and that, notes Petropoulos, might point to coming changes in the culture.

"In any other country in the world, it is a matter of course that these small people be present," she says. "What happens here is that they're so marginalized -- and it happens in restaurants too -- they don't know how to behave.

"But," she adds, "if they have to sit at a table with a napkin in their laps a few times, they'll learn how to do it."

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Dean Kuipers may be reached at weekend @latimes.com.

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