She’s an independent curator, mother of two girls, and creator of ArtPod, who lives in Berlin, Germany and in East Quogue, New York.
Tell us about ArtPod.
ArtPod is a roving exhibition of contemporary art, without walls and without a fixed location, that can pop-up at museums, galleries, art fairs, conferences and other public spaces. The idea is to make contemporary art accessible to kids and other audiences beyond the art world.
My idea of art is that it should take you on a journey. Since each person brings his or her own background and knowledge to it, art is all about interpretation. There shouldn’t be right, or wrong, answers. But so many art institutions present work in a formal way that is intimidating. People feel like they need to be insiders to understand it. I’d like to open up the experience of contemporary art, to create a more tangible, holistic experience.
In a way, kids are the ideal audience for contemporary art because they come to the work without insecurity, prejudice, or political beliefs and are able to respond naturally to it.
Describe your first ArtPod event.
During the last eight weeks before Christmas 2012, we took over the Amerika Haus, a building in former West Berlin that used to house U.S. government offices when the Wall was up, for a show called Imaginary Travels. There were 24 different artists, from Olaf Eliasson to Katharina Lackner. In terms of the quality of the art, I didn’t approach the curating process any differently than I would have done another show. But the experience was totally different: kids and their parents could interact with all the work. Our tour guides and security staff were encouraged to engage visitors in conversation. It was a safe place to ask questions, take your shoes off and contemplate the artwork.
Audiences loved it. We had five times as many visitors as we expected! School groups came during the week, families on the weekends, lots of dads with kids on Saturday mornings. The show worked differently on different age levels. We had grandparents, parents, teenagers, even babies. Something for everyone.
And the kids?
They were totally inspired. At the show, we gave out blank postcards with nothing but empty circles that the kids could fill in. The idea was that they could send them to anyone they wanted, but they really got into it and wanted to hang up their drawings right there in the space. In the end we had a whole wall of their postcards.
What were you doing before that led you to this project?
I’m from New York. I lived and worked there for years before moving to Berlin in 2002. Now we live here and spend our summers on Long Island.
I’ve been an independent curator for 20 years. I had gallery in Chelsea in the 1990s called De Chiara/Stewart, then one in Berlin called MüllerDeChiara until 2008, when I became a mom and needed things to be more flexible. Since then I’ve basically curated one big show a year.
Did having kids influence the direction of your work?
Absolutely. I have two, Paulotta is six and Tessa is four. Before I had them, I swore that they wouldn’t change anything about my life or my art world lifestyle, so we continued to go to Venice and Miami and schlepp them around to see everything. But one day when Paulotta was two and a half we were at the opening of a precarious tent installation at the Berlinische Galerie. There were 300 people there and during the formal speeches suddenly the tent started to move. The audience was horrified and I realized that Paulotta was inside the tent!
We still take them everywhere but in most places we have to be really careful. Being a mom made me aware of the limitations that exist for children in the contemporary art world. This is especially true in Europe, where the idea of high culture is extremely formal and tends to preclude public participation.
So is ArtPod exclusively a European project?
Not at all. There are a few American museums, like LACMA and Mass MOCA, that are making a concerted effort to incorporate children, but there is a long way to go in the United States as well. Museums are often intimidating for kids and many galleries feel inaccessible too. Even adults find themselves feeling self-conscious. Is it a question of age? Financial status? Education level? I want ArtPod to cross those boundaries.
How do you balance your schedules as a mother and curator?
The choice to do both means I am full-on when I have to be on, and off when I have to be off. I am lucky that my husband is an artist with a schedule that is also flexible, so we can trade off the kids during crunch periods.
Much is made of the fact that “Girls” creator Lena Dunham is daughter of two New York artists. Your husband, Stefan Saffer, is an artist and you are a curator. Is the art world a special “place” to grow up?
I think so. By surrounding our children with creative people who are passionate about their work, I think we introduce them to the idea that they can create their own worlds and way of life. Exposure to art at a young age is exposure to a wide range of possibilities. But this shouldn’t be a luxury.
What are your favorite museums for kids (anywhere)?
The Guggenheim in New York, both for the physical experience of the space and the art in that space. The Centre Pompidou in Paris. Hamburgerbahnhof in Berlin for the vast physical space. A few years ago the artist Carsten Höller filled the whole central hall of that museum with live reindeer and straw. It was magical.
What are you favorite things to do with kids in Berlin?
Picnics in the park, bike rides, swims in the lakes of the former East, visits to the peacock island or the fairytale forest in Eberswalde, a sprawling park that is kind of the anti-Disneyland, with wooden climbing structures hidden among the trees that are designed around stories, like the Three Little Pigs and Alice in Wonderland. Also, in Berlin there are the so-called adventure playgrounds, where kids participate in building them. They start with an empty space and create the playground there together organically. The kids learn design, construction, teamwork. These projects are free and open to the public, but parents are not allowed in, only the official counselors, who help them with tools, and the children.
In general, children can be a lot freer and more independent here than in the U.S. and it is really relaxing to go places with them. Restaurants and stores aren’t stressed by their presence. And Germans don’t helicopter parent. There is a collective belief that kids should be self-sufficient from a much earlier age here than American kids. Even the school encourages us to let them walk home from school, or take public transport, starting in 2nd grade!
You live in Prenzlauerberg, the neighborhood in the former East that is famous for its parenting culture. Tell us about it.
It’s true, they say there must be something in the water because there are more kids in our neighborhood than anywhere else in Berlin, or possibly in all of Germany. We like to complain about the stroller autobahn on the sidewalks but actually it’s really nice. Every café has a corner for playing, every doctor’s office too. I guess you can say that we feel empowered having kids here.
What’s next for Artpod?
We’re now developing Imaginary Travels, Part 2, whole new show, and planning to pop up at some art fairs. We are also planning a few short-term museums exhibits, including our first U.S. appearance. Stay tuned for details!
Meanwhile, to listen to an interview about ArtPod on NPR Berlin, click here.