Saturday, May 5, 2007 | Rachel Teagle thinks there’s got to be more parents like her, wishing for a place to take their kids to experience art but worried about frowns and looks of disapproval should her kids, well, be kids.

Teagle is the newly appointed executive director of the Children’s Museum/Museo de Los Ninos in downtown San Diego. She has a 2 1/2-year-old and a 3-month-old, who she says inform her understanding of art’s function in this context nearly as potently as all of her academic art training (art history Ph.D. from Stanford included).

But, she stresses, there’s a lot of misconceptions — notably, that a children’s museum is all about Dora the Explorer and tables with coloring books.

“It’s definitely art-focused,” Teagle says, who most recently was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “It’s a contemporary art museum for families.”

That means art that can withstand wear-and-tear but is also creative and innovative and exciting for children, she says. Recently, Teagle took voiceofsandiego.org on a tour through the new museum site, slotted to open next spring after a seven-year hiatus waiting for adequate funding. Teagle sat down at a nearby café to tell us more about her new venture.

I’ve been reading little bit about what you’ve done at the Museum of Contemporary Art and I’m really interested in the switch. I mean, that’s definitely a change of pace, I imagine, and then especially with the new location at the Santa Fe Depot, that’s got quite a bit of prestige and has gained in popularity. And I’m curious about the switch to the children’s museum.

I’m going to address the last part first. I was at MCASD for almost six years and … almost all our projects were … geared towards just opening in the building downtown. For example, [Thursday Night Thing, a local showcase for regional multi-media artists] — I started that. So I’m really hopeful because a huge part of that is that I really enjoyed that aspect of the work at MCASD and I really wanted to bring the same energy and the same purpose from our building and the downtown audience to the children’s museum. The downtown outreach, developing the community is a part of my work that I really enjoy. And it’s something as a curator that I always am able to do.

So, the bigger picture switch. One of the things I would love to do is address this misconception. People think children’s museum, and they think Dora the Explorer or science museum. And that is not at all what the Children’s Museum San Diego is about. It is an art museum. In fact, we kind of call it a contemporary art museum for families. So it’s entirely art-focused. And it’s, I think, a great way to introduce kids and families and also people who may be intimidated to come to the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s really a gateway institution to build interest in contemporary art. And I get that opportunity, which is what … I’m passionate about. And at the same time, I have two little kids. I just had a baby three months ago…

Congratulations.

Thanks. And I’m back at work. For me it’s the opportunity to bring together the two things I care most about: kids and helping contemporary artists. And I think there are other people like me. … I also think there are a lot of artists who want to make work that is meaningful for kids. And my hope is that by doing that, families are also going to interest other people.

How does it differ to solicit art from artists with this kid focus than contemporary art that would go into an all-ages museum?

There are a lot of differences. One is that I kind of have to explain to them, as well, how this place is different. Because people have a certain expectation of a children’s museum. But there are a lot of people, because there are artists exactly my age, mid-career, who want to do something meaningful for their kids. So once they’re on board, the rest of the changes are really just thinking about projects that can stand to kids’ interests. So things like video art are actually really great — things that can withstand some wear and tear. But also the main component is to get a work of art that excites a kid’s imagination. And I think most contemporary artists love that challenge. And then in the end, it’s not that different from what they would do. Things are not going to be as political or as out there as they could be.

Now, one of the exhibitions you recently curated was art from Tijuana, and you called the spirit of art from there “do-it-yourself” and “irrepressible.” That seems to me pretty similar to how kids create. So, do you see a crossover there?

Well there’s a huge crossover there, first of all because [the Children’s Museum] is now a bi-national institution, so that’s an aspect of my job that I get to keep that was really important to me. That was such a good project, and getting to know the artists from Tijuana was so important to my time in San Diego. Actually, one of the artists from “Strange New World,” (that MCASD exhibit,) Rene Peralta has already been commissioned to create a project. …

But, I think that, yeah, that … creating something out of nothing — that completely connects with kids.

What is the appetite for art in San Diego?

For our first (Thursday Night Thing) event, we were hoping to have 150 people and we had 700. And it just continued to grow from there. So I found that there’s a huge interest in San Diego. That if you put something interesting out there, you’re going to get a great response. And one of the things we’re really excited about at the Children’s Museum, we are toddler to teen. And I think actually teens are really underserved for contemporary art and really, in general, art projects. … We really want to create a place that will captivate the teens. I think that will be a fun challenge.

Is art losing or in danger of losing its audience?

Well, that’s the age-old question. Perhaps certain types of arts are losing interest. But at the same time, by serving a teen audience, I’m pursuing more creative artists. There was one who came out of UCSD whose media was video games, and who created art projects by having spliced together video games. I think as long as your notion of what art is expands with time, there’s always an audience and an interest for art.

What is different about how your work now being informed by your children and … some of your own work that you’ve done curating other exhibits? How does having two children — you have a 2 1/2-year-old and a 3-month-old — how does that inform what kind of projects are you looking for?

I think the best way I learn from my kids is, I come from an academic background. I have a Ph.D. I’m very focused on writing and interpreting art through the written word. And that has a certain audience, but that means nothing to my 2 1/2-year-old. To her, what’s important is the object itself, what it does, and does it interest her, grab her attention? To really be focused on that in art is a very good lesson.

How will the museum make downtown different?

Well, I don’t think there are a lot of places for families. And we’re going to be family-friendly in a lot of different ways. We’ve got the museum during the daylight hours. Our café is going to be family friendly. You don’t have kids yet, but for me a place where parents can go and have a nice meal and have a glass of wine and your kids can be there is very important. I like that. Also, there’s going to be some programming in the evening as part of our teen program. We’ve talked about doing things like animation film festivals. We really want to engage the whole area.

Do you have any sort of stories to tell regarding the decision-making process to switch from MCASD to the Children’s Museum?

As a mom, and as a 37-year-old, I think, it is hard to keep your work and your family life to work well. It’s a real challenge that a lot of women face.  I mean, going to college and taking feminist classes, I thought it was going to be all different than that for me. But it’s not. I think this job is a really unique opportunity for me to pursue the two things I really care about. I’m just really lucky.

What’s your own artistic expression?

I’m a living example of the idiom, “those who can’t do, teach.” We do art projects at home, but…

You said Nancy Graham, the [Centre City Development Corporation] president, has been emphasizing projects like these.

She was saying, culture plays a very important role. We’ve got the “live,” we’ve got the “work,” now we just need the “play,” the cultural amenities. … I just think that’s such a great vision.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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