Exhibition openings are, as a rule, celebratory affairs, with artists, guests, and museum staff raising a glass to a project successfully launched. That said, I have never seen as many smiles as I did at last week’s opening of A Year with Children at the Guggenheim. The event was the culmination of the annual, 20-week Learning Through Art (LTA) program, through which teaching artists, working in collaboration with classroom teachers, develop and facilitate art projects in New York City public schools. After months of hands-on activities and a few visits to the Guggenheim, work by the students is on beautiful display in the museum’s third-floor gallery. This was certainly reason enough to put smiles on the faces of proud parents, who beamed and snapped hundreds of photos of their kids. The kids themselves—20 designated “student docents” who were prepared to explain their work and the work of their classmates to guests—grinned as they posed for yet more photos on the ramps. Guests and staff could hardly stop smiling at the boundless energy and accomplishment of the young artists.
For the student docents, the night promised to be fun, but also entailed plenty of responsibility. Hours before the first guests arrived and the hors d’oeuvres were served, the children were getting ready for their roles as resident experts. They gathered for some warm-ups and pre-game encouragement from Jen Oleniczak, a Sackler Educator at the Guggenheim. “Keep looking in each other’s eyes, just like you’re going to look in people’s eyes tonight,” she called out, as the children joined in an energetic clapping game.
After fueling up with a few slices of pizza, the kids were eager to take up their posts and begin talking about their art. First, though, there were speeches and the aforementioned photo ops. Finally, the children were off at a decorous gallop, enthusiastically leading the assembled crowd up the ramps to the exhibition.
The gallery was soon closely packed with attentive guests, expounding students, parents, teachers, and staff. Standing beside his class’s artwork, Ryan Rodriguez, a fifth-grader at PS 88 in Queens, had no trouble maintaining eye contact as Oleniczak had instructed. A born presenter (“He gets that from his father: the gift of the gab,” his mother, Elisa Rodriguez, said), Ryan offered insights into his multi-hued painting, which, he explained, represented his dream of becoming an architect. “Each color has meaning,” he elaborated. “Yellow is how happy I’ll be when I reach my goal.” He added, “It took a long time to get all the colors right—about two weeks. I had like five palettes filled with color.” He introduced the work of two of his friends—Gemma’s realistic painting of a ballerina (“she wants to become a professional dancer”) and Jocelyn’s painting of a heart in vibrant red and blue. The colors there, he said, stood for the idea that “feelings that come in must come out. Blue [represents] keeping it in, red, you’re releasing it, letting it out.” Before LTA, he said, he and his friends had little art-making experience. “Now we’re really in the swing of doing art,” he said happily. The most important lesson he learned during his months with LTA? “Things don’t have to be perfect.”
Angelina Wu, a third-grader at PS 48 in Staten Island, conveyed a similarly philosophical approach to her work. Asked about the many spots of pale-pink paint on her clay-and-wire figural sculpture, she said, “I started with a mistake, and I thought maybe I could turn it into a happy mistake . . . I liked how the polka dots looked, so I kept painting them.” Two guests, a mother and her elementary-school-aged son, approached Angelina and inquired about her work. Soon, she and the boy were talking in serious tones about the art projects each had done at school—a brief meeting of the minds.
For the LTA students, as with any artists, inspiration often arose from deeply held passions. A sculpture by Gopynath (Gopy) Nandy, a third-grader PS 144 in Queens, was about his love of soccer; two blue, wing-like circles suspended by wire above the clay playing field were clearly there “because I play outside and I wanted [the sculpture] to have the sky.” As Gopy fielded an onslaught of friendly questions from guests, his family clustered nearby, cameras held high. Gopy’s mother, Pryanka, quietly described how much her son had anticipated the opening—to the point of imagining himself at the museum ahead of schedule: “When I woke him this morning, he said, ‘Mommy, am I at the Guggenheim?’”
Molly O’Brien, the teaching artist who worked with Gopy, stood nearby, giving him the occasional word of encouragement. “I can’t help spying on my little docents,” she said. Jeff Hopkins, another teaching artist in the program, joined her, and they talked about how they get their classes excited about creating art. Said O’Brien, “I try to make it fun for me, and that makes it fun for everyone else.” Hopkins agreed. “When we come into the classroom, the focus changes, the energy changes. At the beginning of the year, we establish that, and things flow from there.” He went on, “The program is not really about making a product—it’s about a process.”
As the night drew to a close, I chatted with Melanie Ortiz, a sixth-grader at PS 86 in the Bronx. After more than an hour of standing next to collages created by her class, she was tired, but still upbeat. “Kandinsky’s paintings were here, and they moved them to put up ours,” she said. “So that’s epic!”