"Reach" by artist Scott Garner has survived 10 years since its Tough Art debut in 2013. Photo courtesy of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is surrounded by, embedded with and enhanced by artwork. Consider the silver flaps of Ned Kahn’s “Articulated Cloud” on the façade of the building. And the three 15-foot fiberglass fish, “Al, Mo and Oh: The Three That Got Away,” designed by Chris and Elizabeth Seifert, rotating high above the parking lot. Look up at the dizzying bright ribbons that cascade from the ceiling of the Art Studio. Yep, that’s art, too, titled “More Light” and installed by Dick Esterle.

Museum planners took the love of and dedication to art a step further by creating the Tough Art Residency Program. Now in its 16th year, the museum annually selects a cohort of artists who are challenged to not only make art for the museum but to make interactive art that can withstand daily abuse from its little patrons.

“We want to teach kids how they can interact with art in a way that is for them, too,” says Lacey Murray, the museum’s art exhibition and residencies manager. While traditional art galleries maintain a strict do not touch decree, the Children’s Museum goes in the opposite direction.

“We’re presenting children with many things to explore and play with, but we’re also presenting them with art,” Murray says. “And we want to make that accessible to children because art is for everyone.”

The Tough Art program has hosted more than 70 artists collaborating with museum staff to research ideas, create prototypes and build artwork geared to kids in content, design and durability.

Some installations don’t quite make it. They might not be robust enough to last or they require too much maintenance. Others were built tough enough to remain a permanent part of the museum.

“Cosmic Geometry.” Photo courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

“Temperamental Stairs” (Agnes Bolt and Arthur James), installed 13 years ago, continues to delight kids with its step-by-step giggles and shrieks. “Cosmic Geometry” (Owen Lowery, 2019) is a blast. The large-scale installation shows floating shapes that, when you swipe, turn into explosive colors. Touch the surrounding “rocks” and you trigger sounds of astronomical events. “Reach” (Scott Garner) is another sturdy installation that’s lasted well past its 2013 debut. A trail of star “buttons” allows kids to operate this music machine alone or with a group. It’s a fun adventure in non-competitive play.  

The effort, history and lessons learned over the years led the Children’s Museum to publish a new book, “Tough Art: Making Art as Strong as Kids” ($17.99 in the museum shop). The book is fun for a frequent museum visitor to page through and remember favorite installations, but it serves a larger purpose. It’s a Tough Art how-to guide for organizations on how to work with artists, set up residency programs, create budgets and identify resources.

“With the success of the Tough Art program, we have been consulting with other museums and institutions,” says Murray. “We’ve noticed when we go to conferences with other museums, people, especially from children’s museums, don’t necessarily know how to work with artists or how to set up a program where they work with artists.”

The Children’s Museum is a leader in the field as home to one of the longest-running artist residencies focused on interactive art for children. And it has become an important part of the organization’s objective.

As Jane Werner, executive director, writes in the book’s introduction: “Tough Art is essential to the Children’s Museum mission to provide innovative and inclusive experiences that inspire kindness, joy, creativity and curiosity for all learners. Through Tough Art, we are practicing what most successful artists and children do naturally. We are questioning our own model of the world.”

Here are the latest Tough Art installations:

“Bloom” Photo courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

“Bloom”

A Boston-based Indian artist, Gaurav Petakar created an installation that dispenses native wildflower seeds that kids can take home and plant this spring to improve the environment. When an envelope is placed in the dispenser, kids can choose the type of seed they want and watch the kinetic flowers bloom above.

“Slime Time.” Photo courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

“Slime Time”

Sarah Bowling is a sculptor and painter from Denver who is completing her MFA at Carnegie Mellon University. She understands how slime holds a devoted fascination for kids. With “Slime Time,” kids turn a crank at one of two stations to operate an Archimedes screw that pumps the glow-in-the-dark slime up to a series of Plexiglas channels where it oozes down in a wonderfully slimy way.

“The Bagel.” Photo courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

“The Bagel”

Sculptor and educator Max Spitzer teaches at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh. He created a table animated by tiny air holes — kind of like air hockey — where kids can experiment with different shapes. Some objects glide easily while others stay still, raising the question: Why?  

Call for Tough Art artists

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has opened applications for artists to create engaging works of art as part of the annual Tough Art Residency Program. The program invites artists to participate in the residency from June through mid-September to work with museum staff and develop new works. Artists may apply as individuals or as a team. Local, national and international artists are welcome to apply.

The benefits include a $5,000 honorarium, a $3,500 materials budget and access to fabrication facilities. One out-of-town artist will also receive housing for the duration of the residency and up to $1,000 for travel to and from Pittsburgh.

The deadline to apply is March 12.

Sally Quinn

Sally Quinn is a Pittsburgh-based editor and writer who writes about food, entertainment, kid stuff, pop culture, cocktails!