American Art at Home

The Whitney Museum and its Summer Studio are repping for the kids during the pandemic who have the artistic itch

28 Jul 2020 | 10:17

A pandemic (when you’re safe) can be unproductive. A pandemic (again, when you’re safe) can be mentally draining. A pandemic (ONLY if you’re safe) can, let’s face it, be boring.

That can hit hard when you’re a child in New York City, who spent most of the cold winter months awaiting when summer would arrive and you could take off to summer camp. In the midst of a pandemic, summer camps are no longer an option. But, fortunately, there’s a source of respite: museums.

Several museums around the city have launched summer programs that are now underway, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Jewish Museum. But one that stands out is the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Summer Studio. The Whitney’s Summer Studio takes its vast collection of American art and turns it into an interactive experience for kids and families to learn not only how to draw and paint, but also how to seek inspiration from the artists themselves.

Heather Maxson, the Whitney’s Director of School, Youth, and Family Programs, started this program with the exact intention of providing kids and their families with something to do in these summer months. “I wanted to give kids something fun to do and a way to really engage with the Whitney’s collection of artists and artworks,” she says, “and also to be able to kind of make something of their own.”

Each week, four batches of classes (for different age groups) are held on Zoom with Whitney’s instructors. Each week’s classes are inspired by artists/collections at the Whitney, such as Cauleen Smith, Edward Hopper, and the Vida Americana murals. The classes are then tailored accordingly, and the week ends with a collaborative art project.

“The first class that we did was based on Cauleen Smith,” Maxson says, “who’s an artist who makes these beautiful banners that were in the Whitney Biennial a few years ago that are also handmade. They’re also designed to be kind of marched with and used in protest. So we made kind of protest banners and protest signs that week.” Participants can also share their artwork on Instagram using the hashtag #WhitneyAtHome.

Making these classes free was one of Maxson’s priorities from the get-go. “I felt like it was really important for the project to be free because everybody has so much going on in their lives right now,” she says. “And it’s such a difficult time that it’s a way for the Whitney to give back to our community.”

Free Classes for Public Schools

Museums have assumed a collective responsibility to use this time to show solidarity for their city and their community. For example, the Museum of the City of New York’s recent photo projects, #ActivistNY and #CovidStoriesNYC, have shown how museums are using this time to showcase and support the voices of New York. “The Whitney has always really been a museum for New York City. And even more so now,” explains Maxson. “We have free programs for New York City public schools. And between April and the first two weeks of June, we were able to offer 230 free online classes for New York City public schools, which is pretty amazing because we really feel like we need to be there for our community and we need to support them in any way we can.”

While summer art programs by museums aren’t new, the trying times that we’re in have necessitated them now more than ever. Such programs provide an outlet for creativity and allow productivity to seep back into the lives of anxiety-ridden and social-distancing New Yorkers. Another one of Whitney’s summer programs, Arts Careers, was able to enroll 52 New York City students for virtual sessions as opposed to the 20 cap for in-person ones. “We have so many limitations with COVID and other social distancing,” Maxson says. “But there are things that we can’t do in person that we can do in this way where we are able to accommodate a lot of people in each class.”

In fact, for the Cauleen Smith-inspired classes for teens, the artist’s work was taken one step further to design Zoom backgrounds as part of the class activity, which is probably as relevant and meta as it can get. “For teenagers, it’s a way to let them kind of have some control over their world and customize their world a little bit.” Fair point, considering how bored a majority of the Zoom populace probably is now of their own walls.

While the Whitney, like most other museums in the city, is unsure of when it’ll be able to reopen its doors and work with young artists in person again, it believes that projects like these allow for them to stand out and make a difference. “I think it’s really a cool thing to think about an artist like Cauleen Smith or Edward Hopper or Emma Amos and think about, what can I learn from them? What ideas can I take from them? How can I be inspired to then make my own artwork that has a piece of meat in it?” Maxson says.

The Whitney Museum’s Summer Studio project began July 7 and will go on til August 15. You can check out their classes and potentially enroll at whitney.org/summer-studio-2020.

“I wanted to give kids something fun to do and a way to really engage with the Whitney’s collection of artists and artworks, and also to be able to kind of make something of their own.” Heather Maxson, Whitney Museum of American Art