The Rubin Museum of Art and The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine may seem like unlikely partners. One deals with sacred art from the high Himalayas, while the other focuses on high, Gothic pillars, stained glass windows, and New York History. Unlikely as it may be, the Rubin and the Cathedral actually share a great deal when it comes to education and the people that carry out this important mission for both institutions. I am not the only person currently working at the Rubin who was previously employed at the Cathedral, and I continue to have very strong personal and professional connections to the giant church on the Upper West Side.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is at one time an active church, it is the seat of the Bishop in New York City, and an active museum space. The main object in the collection is the building itself. Many of the Cathedral’s programs deal with architecture and the history of the building, but the large interior spaces also create a wonderful and interesting place for exhibiting contemporary art. Currently on view is the monumental installation by Chinese artist Xu Bing entitled Phoenix. The installation comprises two enormous sculptures, each weighing multiple tons and nearly one hundred feet long, built entirely out of salvaged construction detritus harvested from building sites and trash heaps across Beijing. The phoenixes are suspended in the nave of the church as if they were flying through the long central corridor.
To celebrate the opening of the installation, the Cathedral held a Phoenix Community Festival which was a free public event involving performances, art activities, and tours of the building. Many of the art activities were presented by invited guests of the Cathedral who were interested in doing outreach in the neighborhood. The Rubin was one of these guests, along with Adults and Children in Trust (ACT) and many of the Cathedral’s educators and artists in residence. Based on our connection to Asian cultures and art, both historical and contemporary, and also because of or professional relationship, the Youth and Family Department decided this was the perfect venue in which to increase the visibility of our upcoming family events and programs.
Building upon the inspiration of Phoenix and continuing the theme of animals, we presented a mask-making activity that provided children (and sometimes their parents) with collage materials, oil pastels, colored pencils, feathers, and even sequins to create their own animal-inspired masks. It was amazing to see the creativity of some of the children, who ranged in age from first to fifth graders, and every mask created was unique and beautiful. It was exciting, as an educator, to see the parents getting so involved in this activity. One mother was literally jumping for joy at her daughter’s creation, and one father spent hours helping his son make twin masks for the two of them. My most heartwarming moment was when two boys came up to me and one asked, “Can me and my fake brother make a mask?” When I asked him why he would call his friend a “fake brother” he replied, “Well, because we both really care about each other, but we aren’t related at all.” I melted.
In total, children and parents made about sixty masks during the few hours that our booth was open. Within the first thirty minutes of the event, it became clear that one table was not going to be enough space for all of the children who wanted to participate in the art activity. As we were being swarmed by about fifteen children at once, I found myself frantically searching for a second table. Once that was accomplished, my colleague, teaching artist Rukhshan and I had fairly smooth sailing for the remainder of the afternoon.
At the core of all this excitement and creativity, though, I did take time to talk to all of the grown-ups about the Rubin’s upcoming Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine exhibition and the family programs that would accompany it. The central purpose of my trip to the Phoenix Community Festival was to perform outreach for the Youth and Family department. My success in this could be measured by the fact that I handed out over one hundred flyers for both the Losar Family Day and the upcoming Family Sundays Drop-In program. Many parents took stacks of flyers to hand out to their neighbors and friends, or to hang in various community centers that they frequented. One of the most interesting connections that we made was to a community center for parents who have adopted children from China. I hope to see more than a few of these children and their parents at Losar Family Day on March 8th.
The Rubin Museum of Art is always looking to expand its audiences and to build professional relationships with other institutions around New York City. Although I felt like sixty children was quite a lot to work with for the day, that number pales in comparison to the 4,000 that attended the festival altogether. I hope that other institutions will continue to think of the Rubin when planning events like this, and I look forward to more opportunities to perform outreach for Youth and Family at the Rubin. After all, hanging out in an amazing space making masks with kids for a few hours is not a bad way to spend an afternoon…