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Cari Frisch

The Art of Learning with MoMA’s Cari Frisch

The museum educator works to design interactive spaces that give families a fun, fresh view of modern art

Tucked in the corner on the first floor of the Museum of Modern Art‘s education wing is where I found Cari Frisch one afternoon, giving a tour of the MoMA Art Lab. This year’s space, which runs through Aug. 31, 2014 and on which Frisch collaborated, is dedicated to Movement. It is both playful and provocative, with an activity inspired by an Alexander Calder kinetic sculpture and a performance art station, where a group of kids are glued to a short film by an artist in the museum’s collection. On the back wall, above a row of boxes that contain activities inspired by works of art, is a projected screen hooked up to a Wii remote. But the young boy working the controller isn’t slaying dragons or protecting the streets of Gotham City; he’s splattering paint Pollock-like across the digital canvas in front of him. Look around at the stop-motion animation tools, thaumatropes in the window, building blocks and other toys on the art-making table, and it’s easy to forget you’re at a museum.

This sort of sentiment is not unusual. “I think we’re changing families’ ideas about what a museum visit can be,” says Frisch, an associate educator in family programs. Before joining the department, Frisch was an intern at MoMA. Among other things, she now helps develop weekend workshops and film series as well as organize gallery talks. Museums, once seen as soulless institutions, are no longer simply places where you go to stare at art and learn about historical objects. “They’re increasingly providing dynamic experiences for many kinds of visitors and learners,” says Frisch. The Art Labs, which started as an experiment in 2008, are now something the museum fully embraces. According to Frisch, as many as 40,000 people attend the annual labs, which are adjacent to MoMA’s gallery building in Midtown Manhattan.

After showing me around, Frisch walks up to the second-floor mezzanine and takes a seat overlooking the sleek lower lobby, where an eye-catching red Formula One Ferrari racecar hangs from one of the walls. It’s been a busy day, full of department meetings, emails and a long-distance call to Berlin, but Frisch is in a cheerful mood. When she and her boss, MoMA’s Assistant Director of Family Programs, Elizabeth Margulies, aren’t blueprinting new programs, she says, they’re often tweaking existing ones. In her downtime, Frisch also enjoys teaching the occasional school program at MoMA, although the last four groups she volunteered to lead ended up canceling on her, including one earlier today. (“I’m beginning to think I’m cursed,” she says jokingly.) Ask her what she loves most about her job, though, and Frisch will tell you that it’s creative and — much like the art on view at the museum — it’s also consistently fresh and interesting. “I like that,” says Frisch. Below are excerpts from our conversation.


Cari Frisch at MoMA

Cari Frisch, MoMA’s associate educator in family programs, connecting with kids at the museum (Photo L: Stefanie Metsmakers; Photo R: Robin Holland with ‘The Three Musicians’ (1921) © 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society, New York i)

Did you consider yourself a kid person before you started working in museum education?

I think you have to like kids to do this job and like creating content for them. I found that whether it’s translating part of the program we’ve tried in person into a digital format, like we did when we developed a creative play iPad app for kids, “MoMA Art Lab,” or writing an activity guide for families, or designing content for a hands-on space, I really enjoy coming up with ways to engage families and spark their creativity.

So when you’re at family get-togethers or dinner parties, do you find yourself conducting “research” with the kids who are there?   

Elizabeth and I do draw on our experience with kids we know when developing programs. We’ve shown family friends and Liz’s nephews short films we’re thinking about buying and tested out activities with them. We also keep them in mind when thinking about what kids can do at certain ages and stages.

One of the goals of the family program is to help people understand the works of art in the collection or in special exhibitions. But not everything at MoMA is G-rated. How do you handle that? 

When it comes to a specific piece or show, we try to assess if it’s going to be appropriate or interesting to families. Sometimes things don’t work for our audience because there are works that are inappropriate for families.

Such as?

The Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present show, from 2010, is one we did not program for families. As was widely advertised, some of the performers were naked and many of her performances are physically challenging, so we didn’t think it was a good fit. Though I imagine many kids would be more mature about the nudity than some adults were!


Shape Labs at MoMA

‘Shape Lab’ exhibit, part of MoMA’s family programming in 2010 (Photo: Michael Nagle)

How do you plan a program?

We start with the exhibitions that will be on view. Then we think about what families could do, like should there be an art-making workshop? Should we just look at the show through the lens of materials and techniques and have it be a gallery talk? And, of course, we try to figure out what’s going to be fun. MoMA exhibitions are always changing and the art on view is rotating so the family programs that we have are changing too. Right now we have a collage art workshop in relation to the Magritte show. And next season we’ll have families do a sculpture assemblage workshop in response to an Isa Genzken special exhibition that opened and is really awesome.

Working at one of the world’s leading art institutions has its privileges. The staff café serves up foods prepared by star chef Danny Meyer and, in years past, acts like Kanye West and M.I.A. have performed at MoMA’s annual fundraiser party. Do you get a little spoiled working at MoMA?

I wouldn’t say I’m spoiled; though, there are many perks to working at MoMA. I usually don’t go to Party in the Garden, our big fundraiser. My husband and I went once, when Jay Z came out and performed with Kanye. That was fun. And on most days I bring lunch, usually a salad with some farm-share lettuce. But, yes, working here is pretty special. There are those moments, like when you’re in the galleries alone, before the doors open, where you’re kind of awestruck that you get to be in the galleries alone, like, really? [Laughs.] It’s moments like that, when you’re hurrying to prepare for a class tour and you walk by [Les] Demoiselles d’Avignon and Starry Night and all these famous works. The fact that you get to work with this collection, which is one of the foremost collections of modern art in the world, and all these great people the institution attracts. I learn so much from the people I work with in education and other departments I collaborate with. For instance, like Ingrid Chou and Tony Lee in graphic design. Our department works closely with them to develop the Art Labs and other resources for kids. We challenge and are inspired by each other in ways that make the end result better because of our collaboration.

Who else do you work with at the museum?

The lab projects require collaboration with most areas of the museum — from curatorial to imaging services to the museum painters. We rely on our exhibition design team to help with everything from building tables to helping think of how to construct activities. On the Movement installation, we worked closely with people from our IT and AV teams. Someone actually built the performance art station, and the curatorial team, who helped find and get permission for the Bruce Nauman video, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk). You have all these, like, small miracles — [laughs] things that we didn’t think would happen that came together.


Cari Frisch with kids

Just another day at the museum for Frisch at Play @ MoMA, a special event focused on play (Photo: Kirsten Schroeder)

Interactive spaces like the lab are great for kids to learn about art in a tactile way. What happens when you take them on the gallery tours? Do they get a little rowdy?

Not really. Kids are usually well behaved. Before we go into the galleries, we ask kids to share some museum behavior rules to prepare them. The rules [that] kids consistently feel compelled to share are pretty amusing, from “no biting” to “no shoving” to “no kicking someone in the neck.” All are pretty good rules to live by, but not rules we necessarily expect would come up in relation to museum etiquette.

Tell us about your introduction to art. Were you a frequent museumgoer growing up? 

I’m from Tuscon, Ariz., and when I was younger, I remember we’d always visit museums on family trips. We’d go to the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Boston Science Museum. As I got older, my family would have to wait for me at the end. [Laughs] They would be sitting in the lobby when I came out. I’m a little slow at the museums!

So how did you get interested in arts education?

I sort of fell into the major in college. I studied art history at Emory University and the thing that fascinated me was how much you can learn about different periods in time — and see what was going on in society — just from looking at artwork. I ended up doing a bunch of internships. I worked at an art consulting firm, at a gallery, and found I didn’t really care about the commercial art world. It wasn’t for me. Then I did a summer internship at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and realized that I like museum work. I also did an internship at the Guggenheim in Venice, where we got to do everything. [Laughs] It ran the gamut from guarding art to helping in the store to working with curators and their educational programs. So I enjoyed it there too, and I kind of put it together that I wanted to work in the education department of an art museum. That’s when I moved to New York and applied for an internship at MoMA. I started as a 12-month intern in 2005. It was a great year in which I learned a lot about museum work and educational programming. And when the year was up, I was lucky that my boss received approval for a permanent full-time position. I applied and have been here ever since.

Any advice to those who want to follow in your footsteps?

When I started I did a lot of informational interviews. People were so nice to me and I’ve been giving back that karma for the last few years. Everyone just said, “Oh, you have to intern and make yourself indispensable and it will fall into place.” And I thought, really? And that’s what ended up happening. You have to get your foot in the door, to get some experience, to make sure this is something that you actually want to do because you have to love it in order to do it. It’s hard work and nowadays there are a lot of people that want to do this job. It seems like more and more people are studying museum education in college but there are only so many jobs, which makes it a competitive field.


Cari Frisch talks family programming

Frisch leading a Family Films program (Photo: Martin Seck )

A few weeks ago, you were on a panel at the Museum Computer Network in Montreal. What was that like?

It was nice because it was a small conference, and so it was easy to meet people from other institutions. I was on a panel with three other women: one from the Met, the Smithsonian Institute and one from Green Door Labs, which is a game design company, and we presented about different game projects we developed.

Museum education seems to be big on games these days.

It’s a hot topic. It’s being discussed in relation to K through 12 education, and people are thinking about how games can change education, which is great. We just created a game called “Everyone’s a Critic.” It was a collaboration between MoMA and the Institute of Play. We designed it for people in their 20s and 30s. It was meant to be this fun, social and engaging way to explore the museum’s collection. We give the games away on Friday nights when MoMA is free and many younger visitors come, and there’s also a PDF online you can download. But one thing we learned through play-testing is, not everyone wants to play a game. I love games. But some people feel they can get in the way of their visit. So, yes, I think there’s potential in games, but there are obstacles too. This is something that we’re talking about now, like “Is there a place for a kids game in the gallery? What would that even look like?” That’s sort of the next challenge I’m interested in. Our philosophy is that games should be in service to the works of art; they should make you stop and look closely at a painting, sculpture, photograph or works of architecture and design. A game should help you interact with the art. It should enhance the museum-going experience, not take away from it.

With all the technological changes happening, do you think art museums of the future will be drastically different?

I think museums will become even more interactive. In these participatory times, visitors expect more than to just look at art — they want to respond to what they see. I hope museums of the future will provide opportunities for reflection and discussion that engage visitors in new ways by encouraging them to look closely, think critically, and respond creatively.

And whatever that response is, it shouldn’t involve kicking anyone in the neck, right?

Yes, no neck kicking. I agree with the kids on that universal rule.

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