A Brief History of Children’s Art Exhibitions

Franz Čižek and his Juvenile Art Class.
Photo by Rudolf Johann Bohl (1934), courtesy Wien Museum Karlsplatz.

The display and contextualization of youth art has a stable and wide ranging foundation in art pedagogy and museology. One of the earliest exhibitions of children’s art was organized in 1890, by Thomas Robert Ablett, an English artist and educator, influential for promoting the values and benefits of teaching art to children (see: Kelly, 2004). Ablett was a founding member of the Royal Drawing Society, which fostered children’s artistic development by focusing on their imagination and memory rather than on rote memorization and drawing from observation. Ablett believed that this method would help students interpret subject matter in a more personalized manner. The society held annual exhibitions of children’s art from 1895 to 1980.

Similar to Ablett, Franz Cizek was a late 19th and early 20th century artist and early childhood educator who recognized the importance of showing children’s art to audiences of all ages. Cizek is known to have started the Children’s Art Movement and the Juvenile Art Class in Vienna, Austria, where young students were given the opportunity to work at their free will, and were treated with the same dignity and esteem as their adult counterparts. Cizek understood that it was essential to differentiate children’s art from the work of older art makers. He considered it to be an aesthetic form that only a child is capable of producing (Turner, 1988). This philosophy was an impetus for him to share children’s artwork with the larger public. Cizek said “I value highly those things done by small children. They are the first and purest source of artistic creation” (cited in Tutchell, 2014).

Another significant series of exhibitions focused on children’s art, began in 1917, through the Bloomsbury Group’s Omega Workshops initiative. The inaugural exhibition featured artwork by students of British artist and critic, Roger Fry. A second influential art educator who exhibited their students work in the Omega Workshops, was Marion Richardson. From 1912 to 1923, Richardson taught art at an all girls school, called the Dudley Girls High School. During the course of those 11 years she transformed the school’s standard curriculum and syllabus for drawing into a student-centered environment that gave precedence to the freedom of self expression, evaluation and reflection. She also exhibited her Dudley students’ self-directed artwork in an exhibition in London from 1923 to 1924. This exhibition was so popular that it traveled throughout Europe and Russia. The aim of all these aforementioned exhibitions was to connect the work of children to distinct and discrete aspects of human development, and establish the notion of the ‘child as an artist’ (see: Turner, 1988).

The annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards began in 1923 and have been given to student artists (in visual arts, writing, film and performance) across the United States who show “originality, technical skill and the emergence of personal voice or vision.” It is now the longest running program that honors, recognizes and presents the work of teenage artists (ages 13 and up/grades 7 through 12). Prior award winners include Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, John Baldessari, Joyce Carol Oates and Amanda Gorman; who have all seminally shaped the course of their respective creative disciplines. The first exhibition of work by awardees was in 1928, at the Fine Art Galleries of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. This was the first time that art by high school students from across the United States was curated in a major art venue. The Carnegie Institute was the main site of the yearly exhibition for the next 30 years. Other major sites included the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. Today, there is both a National exhibition and regional exhibitions in nearly all 50 states. For example, in New York, student artists who have earned the awards are featured in an annual exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education.

In addition to presenting the works of children artists, museums founded education departments with the intent of supporting and expanding youth engagement in the arts. In 1937, Victor D’Amico, who was the art department chair at the Fieldston Schools, became the first ever Director of the Department of Education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Utilizing the modern art museum’s collection and progressive pedagogical methodologies including experiential, collaborative and materials-based learning; Victor D’Amico employed a groundbreaking approach to making the seemingly-austere museum environment suitable, accessible and empowering for children of all ages. He directly involved students and educators throughout New York City through hands on art making and art appreciation initiatives. Some of his influential programs included “The New York City High School Program” that lent museum materials and visual aids to classrooms; “The Young People’s Gallery,” where students from participating local schools curated their own exhibitions by selecting works from the museum’s prominent collection; and the “Children’s Art Carnival,” which was an experimental workshop for students ages 3 to 12 that gave students carte blanche to create art in an environment tailored to their individual interests, skills and backgrounds.

Quoted in MoMA’s press release for the launch of the “Young People’s Gallery,” D’Amico stated that “Insistence on teaching from the adult, point of view may stifle or frustrate the child’s appreciation. If not interfered with, children’s reactions are fresh and spontaneous; their responses are governed by highly personal motives. Their sensibilities have not been dulled nor have they become too sophisticated to comprehend simplicity of expression. Art is second nature to them; they have not divorced it from life. They respond to it as readily as they do to play.”

Another significant progression in the appreciation and presentation of children and adolescent art, occurs through the development of collections and archives. Children’s art began being seriously collected simultaneously with the earliest exhibitions. One of the first prominent holdings of juvenile art was assembled by an Italian art historian named Corrado Ricci. Ricci’s astute observation of the content and context of children’s art was recorded in his 1919 book, L’ Arte Dei Bambini, which became an intriguing resource for art educators of his era and beyond (see: French, 1956). Another influential collector and supporter of young persons’ art, was a child psychologist, artist and educator named Rhoda Kellogg. Kellogg lived in the California Bay Area, where she founded a preschool and amassed an incredible collection of over two million drawings and paintings by young children. Like Ablett, Cizek, D’Amico, Fry and Richardson, Kellogg was an artist who realized that the work made by children is a profound phase in the trajectory that an artist follows. As an early childhood school director, she spent significant time working on art projects with her students. Many of these projects began with materials-based explorations using finger paints and gestural scribbles to strengthen the young students’ motor skills and creative impulses. Kellogg’s first hand observation and classroom experiences led to the development of influential classifications citing the early stages of artistic development. She provided significant examples and evidence of the phases children encounter during their largely self-directed trajectory of exploring pictorial representation. Her findings, which are published in several books, are an important resource for educators to support, assess, coach and scaffold their young students’ visual vocabulary and symbolic communication skills.

Each of the previously mentioned individuals, supported the artwork of children, in order to build a heightened state of awareness and respect for children’s symbolic voices within the field of visual art. Their observations and presentations showing how children construct aesthetic representations of the world around them, help adults understand and honor children’s visionary expressions as viable and significant means of communication.

Installation photograph of Brian Belott’s Dr. Kid President Jr, 2017. Courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York.

Contemporary artist, Brian Belott, whose own paintings and installations are inspired by art made by children, presented an exhibition called Dr. Kid President Jr, with works of art from Kellogg’s collection and archives. In addition to showing the historic works of art from Kellogg’s collection, Belott set up a children’s art studio inside the gallery which was open to neighborhood schools. The pop-up art classroom was enveloped by three large walls, so that the students’ finished works could join the overall exhibition display.

Other contemporary instances of children’s art being included in art exhibitions have also blurred the lines between institutional environments like the school and the art museum or gallery. An example is Chemi Rosado-Seijo’s Salón-Sala-Salón (Classroom/Gallery/Classroom), which situates a traditional school classroom as a work of art and gives students agency to create, contextualize and exhibit works of art to a public audience. The experiential work of art has been on view at The Whitney Museum in New York and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico in San Juan (see: Portraying Pedagogy’s Progression).

Brianna Blue, The System, 2020, oil on canvas.
Courtesy of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Exhibitions of art made by children and adolescents present unique voices of generations that are inheriting the future to come. Their present viewpoints signify a cognizant and compassionate population of creative individuals who are responding to the issues of their time, using visual and literary vocabulary that fuses personal experience with collective consciousness. This is strongly evident in a painting called The System (2020) by 2021 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards awardee, Brianna Blue, who is a senior at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. Blue’s painting reflects the myriad moments of violence and affliction caused by systemic bias and oppression. More specifically, it is a scene of domestic violence and how that affects childhood development. As described by art critic, Hakim Bishara (2021), “At the center of the painting is a child surrounded by half-cut papayas, a fruit that represents fragility, according to Blue. A younger child is seen in the background, leaning against the wall in an ill-tempered posture. A somber feeling of a family crisis emanates from the intensely colored canvas, which appears to be depicting the point of view of an adult. The spectator can detect a bottle of alcohol at the door to the room in the painting’s right corner.”

Presenting children’s work for themselves, their peers and communities to view and respond to, is an integral part of the art education curriculum, as well as a powerful and memorable way to encourage generations of continual creativity and appreciation for the arts. Art is a schema for figuring out our individual and collective places in the world, and children have a knack for making art that communicates audacious and timely perspectives. We should learn from their imagery and continue to support their artistic growth by giving them space, encouragement and opportunities to be seen and understood.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Selected exhibitions and collections of children’s art:

Belott, Brian and DiGioia, Jennifer. “Through the Rhodascope: How Rhoda Kellogg Taught the World to Leave Teaching to the Children.” Vimeo, uploaded by San Francisco Arts Commission, 15 October 2019. https://vimeo.com/375029537. Accessed 2 May 2021.

Bishara, Hakim. “Promising Teen Artists Get the Spotlight at the Metropolitan Museum.” Hyperallergic, 29 April 2021. https://hyperallergic.com/641238/promising-teen-artists-at-the-metropolitan-museum/

French, John. “Victorian Responses to Children’s Art.” College Art Journal, vol. 15, no. 4, 1956, pp. 327–333. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/772767. Accessed 1 May 2021.

Kelly, Donna Darling. 2004. Uncovering the History of Children’s Drawing and Art. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Stevenson, Christine, and Margaret White. “Children’s Art Exhibitions: The Contexts and Challenges.” Children’s Environments, vol. 12, no. 3, 1995, pp. 285–289. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41514975. Accessed 2 May 2021.

Turner, Dianne. “Exhibitions of Children’s Art: History, Ideology, and Economics.” Marilyn Zurmuehlin Working Papers in Art Education 7 (1988): 44-59. https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1345&context=mzwp. Accessed 1 May 2021.

Tutchell, Suzy. 2014. Young Children as Artists: Art and Design in the Early Years and Key Stage 1. London: Routledge.

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