A new leader takes the helm at The New Children's Museum
Speaker 1: (00:00)
The new children's museum in San Diego recently hired a new executive director and CEO Elizabeth Yang. Hellowell before this, she spent a decade working at the museum of contemporary art most recently as the chief advancement officer and part of the team that fundraised for the major campus expansion in LA Jolla. Yeah. Hello, just started her role at the new children's museum. This month. She spoke with K PBS arts editor and producer Julia Dixon Evans. Here's their conversation. You
Speaker 2: (00:32)
Have spent the most recent few years of, of your career at the museum of contemporary arts, San Diego, as the chief advancement officer. And earlier you worked in education and curation for the museum. So I'm wondering what is one big thing on your to-do list that you have brought from your experience there to the new children's museum?
Speaker 3: (00:55)
I feel very close to some of my initial roles in museum and those roles were, as you said, in education and really as a teaching artist. And so I think that experience for me, of taking art into the community is something that I've carried with me throughout my entire career and something that the mutual children's museum does very well and has a history of doing very well. But I think we can always do more. And the engagement with the community could always be deeper. It could always be richer. It could always be more expansive. So that is something that I am seeking to develop while UN here at the new children's museum.
Speaker 2: (01:44)
The neutral news museum does have this prolific history of using contemporary art by living artists, not just in addition to these immersive play spaces in the museum, but in, in the creation of those spaces. Could you talk a little bit about that philosophy and the way the museum shares contemporary art with children?
Speaker 3: (02:07)
I mean, this is an organization that was created with this idea, this philosophy that, you know, artists, as drivers of creativity of innovation, would be able to you to work with an education team and create installations for engagement, for play. It is part of the DNA of this organization. It is something that I wanna bring forward more. I mean, the artists, the, the creation, um, the, the space and then the art making for guests in the actual spaces has always been a part of what this organization does. Um, but we're gonna, we're gonna see, we're gonna see if there's other ways to do it. We're going to sort of experiment with the different spaces and, and places in and around this building. I think as we move forward in particularly thinking about outdoor spaces, certainly in this moment, when I think we're all thinking about outdoor spaces and COVID, and I think for artists too, this is such a unique opportunity to create large scale installation work, where, you know, you also have to think about audiences engaging with it in a way that maybe they wouldn't in other types of traditional contemporary art spaces.
Speaker 2: (03:34)
So one of those recent installations was, um, Tatra pinata by, uh, David Israel Renoso and also, um, Panka Elmas ALA, can you talk about what first stood out to you about those works in particular
Speaker 3: (03:51)
David Reynoso's Tiro pinata. I mean, it is an immersive play experience. So, I mean, and I always am now thinking about experiences through my own children's eyes. So, I mean, I, when I bring them to the museum and they walk into a space, I'm always so curious to see how they engage with it. You watch kids and my own kids, you know, walk into these spaces and it's like, they know exactly to do. They know exactly how to engage with the space in Tiro pinata it's they immediately sort of understand the performance element of it. So, you know, they're exploring all of the spaces, but then they're getting on the stage and there doesn't even have to be anyone in the audience, you know, most of the time they're, there's not, or there's, you know, someone walking by, but it's that element of, of play of creativity, of, of making something, even if it's not a physical something, but it's making sort of a short performance with whoever else happens to be in the space. So I, I love that that sort of impromptu nature of the play that comes out of that particular installation.
Speaker 2: (05:07)
How have museum staffers been impacted by the pandemic the last two years?
Speaker 3: (05:14)
Almost. I think there are a lot of questions about museums as places, uh, for community and, uh, questions about who the museum serves and how the museum functions and, you know, if a museum is closed and so many museums did close during this pandemic period, then how does a museum function then? How do you engage with audiences then? What is the role of organization as a community catalyst, as a space where communities can meet, um, and have conversations and be engaged with, with art? I think it's put into question everything that museums are , you know, and I think not to mention with museums being closed, it's also questions around the financial stability of, of organizations, I think has also been something that a lot of museums have been grappling with too. It's may any factors that have come to play and it's, I think, going to results, and this is already happening, but in a complete reconceptualization of what museums are and how they function and who they serve.
Speaker 2: (06:34)
I am also wondering how the new children's museum is handling the continuing but ever changing COVID landscape. Um, particularly what you're hearing from visitors and and families about what they are looking for in these public gathering spaces.
Speaker 3: (06:54)
It's complicated. I will say what I have found, and, you know, maybe this will change tomorrow. Um, but you know, it, everything is changing from one day to the next, we still have many, many families, many children, many caretakers of these children coming through these doors and every single day that we're open what this also says to me. And I mean, I can, I can Intuit this as a parent too, is that this is a crisis moment. I mean, we have been working through COVID for the past two years now, but children, their caretakers families still need and maybe need more than ever spaces to play and to be, and to think creatively and to make things . I think children and their caretakers need safe spaces to engage with one another. And I am grateful that we can provide these spaces safely and, you know, continue to support those types of experiences for the community, because I think they are so absolutely necessary in this moment.
Speaker 1: (08:29)
K PBS arts editor and producer, Julia Dixon Evans, talking with Elizabeth Yang. Hellowell from the new children's museum.
Speaker 4: (08:44)
Remember to join us for KBB S evening edition at 5:00 PM on KBB S television and join us again tomorrow for KBB S midday edition at noon. And if you ever miss a show, you can find the midday edition podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts. I'm kina Kim in for Jade Heideman with Marine Kavanaugh. Thanks for listening.
Elizabeth Yang-Hellewell brings a rich and diverse art and teaching background to the downtown museum — along with significant development chops. On life for children and families right now in the pandemic: "This is a crisis moment."
Earlier this month, The New Children's Museum (NCM) welcomed their new executive director and CEO, Elizabeth Yang-Hellewell. She most recently served at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (MCASD) as chief advancement officer and was part of the team responsible for the $86 million capital campaign for the La Jolla campus expansion.
Yang-Hellewell grew up going to museums, with regular family trips on the weekends and evenings — but it was years (and a brief stint in advertising) before she would imagine herself working in the museum world.
"It took a few turns for me to think about museums not just as places for me to go for my own personal enjoyment and self discovery and for the type of engagement that I was always seeking, but as a place where I could grow as a professional," she said.
Her early work in museums was largely spent in education. She worked as a teaching artist at the Museum of Photographic Arts, and then as a gallery guide and teaching in a community outreach program at MCASD.
"That experience for me of taking art into the community is something that I've carried with me throughout my entire career, and something that the New Children's Museum does very well and has a history of doing very well. But I think we can always do more," Yang-Hellewell said.
Art is 'part of the DNA' of NCM
Her art-centered start in the museum sector is fitting for NCM, where contemporary art isn't secondary to play spaces or children's interactive experiences — it's fundamental to those experiences.
The New Children's Museum has a prolific history of using contemporary art by living artists, actually inviting the artists to build and design immersive exhibitions with NCM staff. Most recently, Panca's "El Más Allá," David Israel Reynoso's "Teatro Piñata" and before that, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s "Whammock!" or Wes Bruce's "The Wonder Sound."
"What the New Children's Museum does is completely unique in the children's museum space — it's completely unique in the contemporary art space. This is an organization that was created with this idea, this philosophy that artists as drivers of creativity, of innovation would be able to work with an education team and create installations for engagement, for play," said Yang-Hellewell.
The museum was founded as The Children's Museum of San Diego in 1983 in La Jolla and also spent some years in a downtown warehouse as Children's Museum/Museo de los Niños. The institution reopened in its airy downtown space in 2008 as The New Children's Museum, and that "new" in the name is sticking around — a front-and-center nod to the freshness of the installations by contemporary, living artists.
"[Art] is part of the DNA of this organization. It is something that I want to bring forward more as I step into this role," said Yang-Hellewell, pointing to new experiments with outdoor spaces like Risa Puno's "In the Balance."
She added that for the artists they work with, it's a chance to do something unusual, where audiences engage with a large-scale installation in ways that rarely, if ever, happen in other contemporary art spaces.
On how children play in immersive art installations: "I'm now thinking about experiences through my own children's eyes. And I think it's interesting to also watch adults as they walk into some of these spaces, because I think they have a lot less experience in a lot of ways with engaging with these types of spaces. But you watch kids and my own kids walk into these spaces, and it's like they know exactly what to do. In 'Teatro Piñata,' they immediately understand the performance element of it. So they're exploring all of the spaces, but then they're getting on the stage — and there doesn't even have to be anyone in the audience. I love that sort of impromptu nature of the play that comes out of that particular installation." — Elizabeth Yang-Hellewell
'Rethinking what the museum is, and who it serves, and who is the museum'
In 2019, staffers at NCM began to organize. During the pandemic — in remote negotiations while the museum was closed and many workers were laid off — they finally signed their first contract. It's a first for the region.
"I am proud to say that we are the only museum in San Diego that is unionized. I think that there are a lot of museums across the country that are having these types of conversations, that are going through unionization processes," said Yang-Hellewell. "It comes out of larger conversations in the museum community about equal pay, about working conditions, and I think fundamentally we have conversations about accessibility for our audiences but I think there are also conversations about accessibility for staff entering the museum field."
Still, challenges for staffers in the museum sector have been magnified during the pandemic.
"I think we are continuing to have all of these conversations at the New Children's Museum. And I'm happy to say that we have a great working relationship with the union," Yang-Hellewell said.
Yang-Hellewell said it is all rooted into bigger questions and bigger issues in the museum world: "Fundamentally it goes back to people rethinking what the museum is, and who it serves, and who is the museum," she said.
"And I think one of my priorities in this seat as CEO and executive director is driving those conversations. In having a union here at the New Children's Museum, those conversations have already started."
Access, equity and admission fees
Museums across the country grappling with much-needed overhauls and reckonings about access, equity, diversity and their past. When asked about the potential of a no-cost or free admission policy to increase access, Yang-Hellewell said that can't be a museum's first or only step.
"On a very fundamental level, I think a lot of the reasons why museums move towards a free admission policy or a pay-as-you-go admission policy is out of a desire to create greater accessibility to the organization — and that I do believe in," Yang-Hellewell said. "But I also don't believe that admission is always the primary barrier. I think that there are many other inhibitors to creating accessible museum spaces."
Yang-Hellewell wants NCM to first think about the idea of belonging, or who feels welcome or comfortable accessing the space and programming: "Who feels comfortable walking up to the door?"
COVID: 'A crisis moment'
The two-year dialogue about the pandemic hits differently for families with young children. NCM's main visitor base is one that isn't yet eligible for a vaccine, and the struggles with childcare continue to be a major issue. Families' needs are unfathomable and complicated right now. Yang-Hellewell and her wife have two young children, so as a parent, she gets it.
Last Saturday, a holiday weekend, was incredibly busy despite the omicron surge — more than 950 visitors came through the doors, she said.
"This is a crisis moment. I mean, we have been working through COVID for the past two years now, but children, their caretakers, families still need — and maybe need more than ever — spaces to play and to be and to think creatively and to make things."