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Arts & Culture

A new leader takes the helm at The New Children's Museum

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Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Elizabeth Yang-Hellewell is pictured in an undated photo.

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.

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Courtesy of NCM
A child plays on stage in David Israel Reynoso's "Teatro Piñata" exhibition in an undated photo.

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."

RELATED: Panca's 'El Más Allá' Opens At The New Children's Museum

"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.

Panca's "El Más Allá" installation at The New Children's Museum opens to the public Aug. 13, 2021.
Kim Valente / Courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Panca's "El Más Allá" installation at The New Children's Museum opens to the public Aug. 13, 2021.

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.

RELATED: The First Museum In San Diego To Unionize Has A Contract

"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."

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Courtesy of NCM
The exterior of the New Children's Museum is shown in an undated photo.

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?"

RELATED: Low- and No-Cost Museum Admission Aims to Boost Access

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."