N.Y.C. With Kids: Think Outside the Frame

Creativity is on the walls and in the air, above, at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The food's good, too.
Creativity is on the walls and in the air, above, at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The food's good, too. (Helayne Seidman - Helayne Seidman Ftwp)
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By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 11, 2008; Page C02

We try to be good parents. Really, we do! We've worn our brain cells to little nubs giving our two daughters a grounding in the arts. Piano lessons? Check. The National Gallery? Check. Dance classes, art camp, concerts at the Kennedy Center? Check, check, check again.

Sure, threats may have been employed, and possibly a little light bribery from time to time. If that's what it takes to nurture young aesthetes in a YouTube world, so be it.

But there was one important area we'd always neglected: the world of contemporary art.

So with a recent vacation upon us, we got a bright idea. Instead of the usual fun, relaxing week on a Florida beach, we'd head to New York for a cultural vacation. It would be great -- four days of intensive immersion in modern art, going to galleries and exploring the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art and, of course, the mother ship: the Museum of Modern Art.

We probably wouldn't get very tan. But we'd come home with our brains tingling, bonding as a family over lively discussions of the latest ideas in avant-garde art.

Okay, fellow parents, stop laughing.

* * *

Armed with optimism, we found ourselves a few weeks later on the Upper East Side, pushing through the crowded lobby of the Whitney. It seemed like the perfect place to start, since it happened to be hosting the famous Whitney Biennial, a major survey of new work by the country's most cutting-edge artists. It promised to define "where American art stands today." What better introduction could there be?

But it looked like a pretty advanced show, so I gave the girls a "Modern Art 101" pep talk over dinner the night before.

"A lot of what we'll see may seem weird," I told them. "But give it a chance, even if you don't get it right away. It's going to be fun! Artists are basically playful -- they're playing with ideas, turning things on their head, creating surprising, beautiful stuff designed to make you think in new ways. So let's go with an open mind. It's going to be an adventure."

But now, standing in the Whitney and staring into Jason Rhoades's "The Grand Machine/THEAREOLA," I wasn't so sure. The piece consists of a huge room filled with -- not to get overly technical about it -- junk. Really: a shambles of old office chairs, candy wrappers and other trash strewed across the floor.

Christina, the eldest, raised a teenage eyebrow at me. "So -- is this 'art'?" she said, making little quote marks with her fingers.

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