If you're a kid growing up in the 'burbs, hopelessly far from any sort of happening scene like Brooklyn, L.A., or Miami, how can you ever plug in?
It helps to have a rad older brother.
Once upon a time, there was a children's museum cast away on the outskirts of suburbia, forging its roots in the creatively barren wasteland that is Broward County west of I-95. Hidden between a Goodwill store and an old-timey diner in a strip mall off of State Road 84, the Young at Art Children's Museum offered studio art classes, exhibitions for kids, and a way-cool permanent glow-in-the-dark installation by renowned street artist Kenny Scharf. But it flew under the radar of grownups for its first 22 years, drawing mostly crayon-wielding rugrats for field trips and summer camps.
Everything changed in May of 2012.
After ten years of planning, Young at Art Museum got a new facility — a 55,000-square-foot, multipurpose museum/library educational complex. The new incarnation of the museum has been named as one of six nationally accredited children's museums and one of eight official "cultural institutions" in Broward County. And now, with the involvement of a group of stylish young professionals, this formerly dinky kids' museum is turning into Broward's most exciting new focal point for arts and culture.
Certainly, Young at Art maintains a special focus on children, but it bridges the gap between an adult art museum and a tots' romper room. And it's becoming a model for other museums in the country. In addition to consulting with the Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Chicago Children's Museum to perfect its new exhibition spaces and programming, Young at Art also commissioned cutting-edge, greencentric work by respected architects, exhibit designers, and builders.
The new space is home to four permanent, interactive exhibits, including a CultureScapes exhibit that celebrates contemporary art from around the world and a WonderScapes exhibit that encourages imagination and play through the lens of Alice in Wonderland. There are also studios professionally equipped for drawing, painting, photography, digital design, and more; a dedicated exhibition space called the Knight Gallery; and a 10,000-square-foot Broward County Public Library, perfect for sourcing inspiration.
Executive Director Mindy Shrago, cofounder of the museum and one of the driving forces behind the expansion, said, "The opening of our permanent home is testament to the steadfast support of our community, governmental, and corporate partners who understand the importance of art and creative thinking and the positive impact it has on our children and families."
One way that Young at Art has made strides toward an elevated, "adult" museum experience has been through a core group of young innovators who originally came together to help raise funds for the new museum. They promoted pop-up events in places like Fort Lauderdale's up-and-coming FAT Village Arts District and formed their own nonprofit group called the Bedlam Lorenz Assembly, which now steers some of YAA's programming. The assembly organizes events, artist workshops, and exhibitions. Its name is a serious-sounding term made by mashing up words that suggest organized chaos, an elegant insanity. ("Bedlam" and "assembly" are opposites; "Lorenz" comes from American mathematician and chaos theory pioneer Edward Norton Lorenz.)
Bedlam Lorenz Assembly functions like the awesome teenaged sibling who has an ear to the ground. Group members scout contemporary art, street art, and interactive and hands-on projects, then figure out how those can be creatively presented and reinterpreted for kids or used to raise money for the museum. They look at what's happening in New York, Los Angeles, or Miami's Wynwood district and bring some of those elements into play in Davie. The result? Kids are engaged, and even grownups are drawn in.
"One of the things that I thought was particularly important to the museum was changing content all the time," says BLA Chair Zack Spechler, who's been integral to the museum's development since he was 3 years old, attending museums across the country with Shrago, his mother. By providing feedback from a kid's perspective, he helped create YAA's first incarnations.
"The old museum, everyone really liked it," says Spechler, who is also a lawyer, "but one of the complaints was always, 'It's the same thing; it doesn't change.' So, we are the contemporary arts alternative projects group; we're multifaceted, just like the museum."
Along with art director and curator Rory Carracino, cochair (and sister of Zack) Ali Spechler, designer Ben Morey, project manager Anthony Delgreco, and photographer Tara Penick, Spechler has already produced three group exhibitions since 2011, including two that had auctions as fundraising components. Bedlam Lorenz Assembly has also organized six artist lectures and workshops this past March that were open to the public with regular museum admission.
One such workshop, designed for ages 3 to adult, was led by Miami-born, New York-based Jessica Laino. It involved an introduction to the artist's sand mandala artworks, one of which the museum had recently commissioned for a fundraising auction. The traditionally Buddhist practice of creating the beautiful mandala design and then ritualistically destroying it once it's completed symbolizes a belief in the transitory nature of material life. It was appropriate, then (although disappointing), when, only a day after its completion, the mandala was destroyed by a freewheeling child left unsupervised by his parent. For her workshop and lecture, conducted on a projector via Skype, Laino gave students a tour of her New York studio, demonstrated how they could create their own sand mandalas, and addressed the importance of treating all art — even that meant to be destroyed — with respect.
It's a continual challenge for Young at Art and the Bedlam Lorenz Assembly to balance their continuing focus on interactive, child-friendly artworks with their new mission to commission and show more serious pieces.
"We're trying to come up with behavior by design," Spechler says of the challenge. "I want it to be accessible in the way that I could walk up and touch it."
In its latest group exhibition, "Lexicon," which opened April 6 in conjunction with the 2013 YAA Festival of the Arts, the BLA commissioned six artists, most of them local, to install works throughout the museum with the addition of a child-friendly, interactive, or hands-on element.
For one of his pieces, titled La Charada Del Monstruo, Cuban-born, Miami-based artist Hugo Moro created his own version of the Chinese folk game that was originally introduced to Cuba in the 1800s. To go along with his graphite-on-rice-paper work depicting Westernized, consumerist adaptations of the original Chinese symbols, Moro created and distributed an informational card explaining the rules of the game, inviting visitors to play along with his work.
In Cuba, a "bookie" would select one of the numbered symbols, and the townspeople would place "bets" to see who could guess which symbol he had chosen, based on a series of clues. It's a simple game that anyone could afford to play. Coupled with his giant mural of corporate and pop-cultural symbols, it's an effective way of showing how Western culture shamelessly cashes in on young people through seemingly innocuous media.
Other interesting works in the show included Gustavo Oviedo's Periodic Table, which asked visitors to interpret various symbols using a grid system, and Ruben Ubiera's Sapien Experiment series, which brought a street-art element to the show in large, colorful, mixed-media constructions of monkeys exploding across the walls.
A loosely themed exhibition strategically spaced throughout the museum, "Lexicon" introduces the unique and distinct vocabularies of six contemporary artists, attempting to address serious topics in a fun, interactive way that children — and adults — can understand. An adults-only closing event on May 18 will feature live music, food, and libations.
It may not have worked out all the kinks yet, but the new Young at Art, with the direction and creative vision of the Bedlam Lorenz Assembly, seems poised to continue cultivating the South Florida arts community while bringing up the next generation of young artists to live happily ever after.