New York's "Secret" Indoor Play Space: MoMA Art Lab

by  Paul Eisenberg | Nov 27, 2012
NYC aerial view
NYC aerial view / Mak3t/iStock

If you're planning to take the kids to the Museum of Modern Art, ask them before you go what kinds of art they think they might see there. So suggests the museum’s website. This weekend, my wife and I (along with another couple) put that question to five kids ages 13 and under (our three children plus their two). The collective response was, "we don't care, we want to go ice skating."

No, we're going to the museum, the grown-ups retorted. Actual stomping and screaming ensued on both sides (real parenting happens at this blog, folks) and the debate continued until we reached the museum lobby. We almost caved and abandoned the plan – especially in view of the museum's $25 per adult admission fee.

But then we threw caution to the wind, dragged everyone in, and made a beeline for the first floor MoMA Art Lab. And as soon as we saw the lab, it hit us: We had been selling this outing all wrong, to the kids and ourselves.

Instead of telling our children that we were going to a contemporary art museum with cutting-edge designs on display (which is certainly the case), we should have said we were going to hang out at an indoor play space with crafts and supervised activities, a service that the Art Lab has been providing to parents for years.

This iteration of the art lab (the fourth since 2008), which opened early last month and runs through August 2013, focuses on how artists represent people. As we entered the lab – a spacious and bright alcove with an enviable view of the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden – a concierge of sorts greeted us and explained how the space was set up. An area along the wall allows kids to draw and manipulate shapes. A workstation set up for making puppets – out of chopsticks, paper, tape, and metal fasteners – is studiously supervised by museum staffers. And when kids are done crafting their puppets, they can scoot behind a nearby light screen and do a puppet show for their parents.

The high point of the space is a bank of sweet, oversized touchscreen monitors dedicated to the Microsoft program Fresh Paint. The software is already becoming commonplace for Windows 8 users, but for more than a year it was prototyped for young artists here. Quite simply, the program enables high-tech finger painting. You can render realistic brush strokes against a virtual canvas or, as my younger daughter did, snap a self portrait and augment it with paint. If your child gets stumped by how to work the program, as my six-year-old did, a staffer instantly materializes to help. Once done, your child can share the finished artwork via email. If there is no one else signed up to use a monitor, you can linger at yours beyond the ten-minute time limit normally imposed.

Once we had our fill of the Art Lab, the kids allowed us to visit what I'd consider the must-see gallery if you only have time for one: the architecture and design exhibits on the third floor. The kids were marginally impressed by the displays of calculators, faucets, bedroom sets, and other painstakingly designed products that have spanned the last few decades. And had we timed our visit right, we might have availed ourselves of one of the free family gallery talks and workshops.

But ultimately, it's the Art Lab that provides the smart value here. The math ended up making sense. While adult museum admission for our outing totaled $100, kids 16 and under are always admitted free (the Art Lab is free with admission and keeps the same hours as the museum). That means that we spent $20 per child for 90 minutes of play time in the Art Lab. For an indoor activity based in New York City, that’s hard to beat. Plus, there was a half-hour stretch there when the kids were so engaged that the adults were able to catch up on old times without having a child interrupt. And if you’re a parent, you know how priceless that is.

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