Art: 'Family friendly' exhibits can appeal to adults, children

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Jerry Pinkney, "Little Red Riding Hood Met a Sly Wolf," watercolor and pencil on paper, 2007.

'Family friendly," whatever that term might signify in particular applications, appears to be catching on in area art museums as a marketing concept.

The phrase really means "child friendly" - that is, the content will either interest children, or amuse them, or at least not bore them. In the best possible scenario, it might even instruct them.

"Family friendly" apparently emerged in the smaller regional museums, with exhibitions devoted to the Muppets, sculptures made from plastic Lego bricks, and masterpiece paintings executed in jellybeans.

But now the big boys have bought into the idea. "Art Splash," continuing through the summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, isn't a kid-magnet, populist attraction like the shows just mentioned, but a thoughtfully calibrated project designed to intelligently bridge the divide between the aesthetic tastes of adults and children.

It isn't easy to achieve such a goal. As one would expect, kiddies are often either puzzled or put off by standard art-museum fare. They're not likely to be dazzled by things that interest mom and dad, just as parents are more likely to prefer even Andy Warhol to the Muppets.

Museums not only want to attract children, they need to do so; kids are tomorrow's potential audience. So museums need to persuade them that museum experiences can be positive.

"Art Splash," which occupies the entire Perelman building, does as good a job as is possible without compromising standards that museums have long held dear.

It comprises five exhibitions plus a variety of hands-on activities to encourage juvenile creativity. Some take place in the Perelman atrium, which has been converted into an art studio furnished with special modular tables created by installation designer Jeffrey Sitton.

In varying degrees, all the exhibitions appeal to both adults and children. The most child-friendly is probably an installation by a Philadelphia artist once known as Candy Depew; she now calls herself Candy Coated.

Her "CandyCoated Wonderland" combines pure visual sensation with nostalgia and playfulness.

The artist mixes child-size mannequins dressed in fairy-tale costumes with exuberant silkscreened fabrics and wall decals. The result is fairyland escapism that encourages immersion in an alternative reality.

Two exhibitions lean more toward adult taste and experience. One is "All Dressed Up," which compares and contrasts clothing for children and adults from the late 18th to the mid-20th centuries. The examples of garments for both sexes, such as the "CandyCoated" costumes, come from the museum's collection.

"Family Portrait," the other show that favors adults, also comes from the permanent collection. The theme is photographs of families or family members, sometimes made by relatives.

Although the images were made mostly by professionals, this isn't an especially strong theme, in part because it isn't an obvious one.

One hopes at best that some of the photos, which come in all styles and from all periods, would communicate family bonds or intimations of family life, and some do.

One of the more striking examples, a large color print by Lucas Foglia, depicts a family group in which a woman holds a smaller photo of herself that her husband took on their wedding day.

There are some familiar images by celebrated photographers, such as Harry Callahan's portrait of his wife, Eleanor; Emmet Gowin's lovingly intimate portrait of his wife and children; and Larry Fink's picture of a birthday party in Martin's Creek, Pa.

The other two exhibitions settle on the boundary between satisfying adults and children in equal measure. "Design for the Modern Child" presents toys, furniture, and related domestic objects such as textiles either designed for or scaled to children.

My favorite among the toys has to be a pedal-powered airplane designed by American artist Viktor Schreckengost. Look up - the example in the show, privately lent, hangs from the ceiling. It captivated me because I had one as a child.

The quintessence of "family friendly" is the retrospective for Philadelphia-born illustrator Jerry Pinkney, winner in 2010 of the prestigious Caldecott Medal, awarded annually for the most distinguished American picture book.

With more than 100 watercolors made for books, album covers, calendars, and advertisements, the Pinkney show is the "Art Splash" centerpiece.

As illustration, it's the kind of show most likely to be "family friendly" on a high level. Children can enjoy Pinkney's impressive range of subject matter, from fairy tales and American folklore to biblical tales and jazz.

Adults will admire his unaffected realism, his masterful draftsmanship and command of the watercolor medium, and his willingness to tackle fraught subjects such as slavery without attenuating its horror.

"Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney" is an impressive career summary that speaks to audiences of all ages and skin tones. It proves that "family friendly" exhibitions don't need to be patronizing to be effective.

 


Art Splash

The full "Art Splash" program continues in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through Sept. 2.

The exhibitions close at various times: "Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney" on Sept. 22, "Design for the Modern Child" on Oct. 14, "Family Portrait" on Nov. 10, "CandyCoated Wonderland" on Nov. 17, and "All Dressed Up" on Dec. 1.

Perelman hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. The museum will open on Sept. 2, Labor Day. Admission to "Art Splash" exhibitions and programming is $10 for adults. $8 for visitors 65 and older, and $7 for students with ID and visitors 13 through 18. Children 12 and younger are free. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com

"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear on alternating Sundays.