Play hard, kids! This ‘Tough Art’ exhibit can take it

Above photo: “Tough Art” artist Megan Flød Johnson adds to her piece, “The Nest.” Photo by Lacey Murray.

The latest edition of “Tough Art” at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh offers up another kid-proof exhibit.

Since 2007, the museum’s “Tough Art” series has allowed guests to interact directly with works on display. The museum invites artists from diverse disciplines and media to create new pieces, refining their processes while gaining exposure to new audiences. The current batch of artists spent the summer developing concepts and building prototypes of large-scale works that invite hands-on participation while standing up to their most difficult critics: energetic kids.

The newest “Tough Art” exhibit opens Sept. 14 and runs through Jan. 21.

The museum’s staff is uniquely qualified to help artists design kid-proof projects, says project specialist Lacey Murphy.

“Our visitors expect to be able to interact with everything in our museum,” she says. “The ‘Tough Art’ residency works with artists to make their artwork tough enough to withstand the wear and tear of children.”

Minnesota-based artist Megan Flød Johnson became interested in the residency program because of its emphasis on experimentation through all stages of the creative process. Her project, “The Nest,” is an evolving installation based on the premise that a mysterious beast inhabits the museum. Children can change the shape of the nest—built of aluminum rigging and rainbow ropes—and layer materials onto it as the creature’s story unfolds. Facilitator-performers help them choose how to participate, whether by building the nest or drawing a map tracing the monster’s origins.

“It heightens emotions to have a character ask for your help in their important work of creating a home for a giant beast,” says Johnson, who has designed art experiences for young people for eight years. “By participating, they become characters in the story themselves.”

In fact, visitor engagement—with art and each other—is a common thread woven throughout the “Tough Art” exhibit.

For example, “Drawn Together” by Robert “Zach” Zacharias encourages healthy social interaction among strangers through a digital collaborative drawing.

tough art
Kids experiment with a prototype of “Urchin Searchin Sound.”

“Urchin Searchin Sound” by Pittsburgh artists  H. Gene Thompson and Arvid Tomayko is a large-scale, touch-reactive sound cave that allows guests to connect through their exploration of tactile, soft sculptures.

And Shohei Katayama’s kinetic sculpture and sound installation, “Nimbus Drum,” utilizes clanging metal beads to draw attention to underlying systems in nature.

Murray is eager to see the artists’ ideas come to fruition in an environment that over 300,000 guests pass through each year.

“Seeing our visitors enjoy a ‘Tough Art’ work is the goal and makes all of the time and energy put into the program worth it,” she says.