The New Children’s Museum celebrates its 10th year downtown


Art should be an experience.

That’s the concept behind the return of “No Rules Except ...” opening May 11 at The New Children’s Museum. The installation of 40 mattresses and 165 handmade, silk-screened tire cushions by artist Brian Dick is a reprisal of one of the museum’s first exhibitions when it reopened 10 years ago this month downtown. (Formerly known as Children’s Museum/Museo de los Niños San Diego, it had closed in 2002 for the construction of a new building and re-emerged in 2008 with a new look and a new name.)

It’s a fitting way to celebrate the museum’s 10th anniversary. It embodies the institution’s goal of exhibiting art that’s engaging to children without explanation — and it has been the museum’s most requested work.

“No Rules” is a kid-friendly takeoff of the groundbreaking work of Allan Kaprow, an artist and professor at the University of California San Diego, who died in 2006. His 1961 “Yard” re-created a junkyard at a New York gallery with old tires that people could wander over or throw around.

“It will be an immersive space, exciting to be in, and absolutely safe,” said Dick, who currently lives in State College, Pa. Mattresses will be stacked against the walls to be used as climbing ramps, and the soft foam tires can be stacked, climbed on or into, or thrown.

“The physicality of the piece is the experience, and you’re inventing while you’re there,” Dick said. “What I’m making is visual, but people intuitively use it the way it should be used. There is no wrong way to play in there. The sound is very muffled. It can be a quiet, intimate space, and it can be a rowdy, loud space, depending on the activity.”

Tomoko Kuta, the museum’s deputy director since 2011, said people keep asking about “the mattress room,” so it seemed the perfect choice for the anniversary. The new version will be wheelchair-accessible and have a separate area for toddlers.

This type of installation, which allows children to play creatively, is at the heart of the museum and represents a shift in its mission since 2008. The museum — which traces its roots to La Jolla, where it opened as the Children’s Museum in 1983 — started as a contemporary art museum for families.

“It was truly stunning, but too austere,” Kuta said.

But while it’s still focused 100 percent on art, she said, now it’s a children’s museum with contemporary art. It is the collaboration between the museum and artists to create one-of-a-kind spaces that makes it stand out from other children’s museums.

“It’s difficult to fuse play with art,” Kuta said. But, she added, the artistic subtleties are important. “Works of art that are unique and unusual provide the discovery that we had when we went outside to play.”

The 50,000-square-foot, three-level space — designed by Rob Quigley — houses about 10 installations at a time, some small and intimate, others grand.

Creating “The Wonder Sound” with artist Wes Sam-Bruce, which opened in June 2016, was a pivotal moment for the museum, Kuta said. The two-way conversation about the project between museum staffers and the artist serves as a model for installations and how they connect to the community. “The Wonder Sound’s” labyrinth of rooms, nooks and ladders was created with 18,000 hand-cut wooden shapes and then layered with objects, words, stories, pictures and even an original language. The 30-room structure, Kuta said, “still takes my breath away.”

The museum has switched from closing for five weeks for a complete turnover of exhibitions to changing installations one at a time once they are worn out.

“We have become so much part of some people’s family” that closing for an extended period wasn’t a good business model, said Judy Forrester, who has been executive director and CEO since the end of 2015 and came on board to focus on the business side of the museum.

That new approach, along with a greater focus on marketing, seems to be working.

“We’ve seen a 40 percent attendance growth in the last two years,” Forrester said.

The museum had 269,951 visitors in 2017 (including school groups and private parties), nearly twice as much as 10 years ago, and on a busy day as many as 2,000 visitors can come through the door. Almost half of last year’s $4.1 million operating budget was from attendance revenue — admissions, memberships and private functions.

Community outreach is also an important component for the museum. Free art classes, which are offered in conjunction with community partners, are available throughout the county and focus on underserved groups. “We want to make sure we are accessible to everyone,” Forrester said.

Kuta said the museum is planning on “doing more of what we have now,” expanding into underutilized classroom spaces if needed. “For the next five-year exhibition plan, we want to make sure we have the facilities to accommodate the growth,” Forrester said.

Part of the museum will always be dedicated to creating art. The hands-on experience includes painting a 1950s truck on the patio or creating a clay figure that can be taken home.

The Innovators Lab focuses on STEAM learning with projects such as light-up greeting cards. “We try to demystify science at an early age,” Forrester said. “It’s helpful for the next generation.”

And while the goal is to have adults interact with children, Kuta said, the museum recognizes that sometimes “adults just want to chill.”

The important thing is that children play together.

“The one thing I love and I’m so proud of is that it’s a gathering place for people from all walks of life, backgrounds and religions,” Forrester said.

“It’s a little bit of an undiscovered gem.”

“No Rules Except…”

When: Opens May 11

Where: New Children’s Museum, 200 W. Island Ave., downtown

Admission: $14; $10 military and over 65; children under 1 are free

Phone: (619) 233-8792


Schimitschek is a freelance writer.