Children’s Museum looks forward to new home

Kids will have a hands-on place to explore art and environment

Students at PS 11 explore the rivers exhibit on the museum-on-wheels.

Students at PS 11 explore the rivers exhibit on the museum-on-wheels.

On the Bronx bank of the Harlem River, a 26,000-square-foot castle-like building stands behind a giant white bubble covering 16 tennis courts in Mill Pond Park.

Carla Precht, 58, executive director of the Bronx Children’s Museum, stepped into the building–which was built as a powerhouse to supply the Bronx Terminal Market and now belongs to the Parks Department–and took the elevator to the second floor. The door opened to a vacant space, and Precht began to describe how she wanted it to look.

“We’ll have an area called ‘Community Arts,’ which will be like a little mini landscape or cityscape where children get to play in a subway car,” Precht said, pointing to an area surrounded by bare concrete walls. “There will be a place for artists to come to have their studios and children will be able to work with them.”

After eight years of discussion and negotiation, the Bronx Children’s Museum has reached an agreement with Parks Department to take over the space and make the Bronx the last borough in the city to get a children’s museum of its own.

Precht said the agreement, which still awaits a final signature from the Parks Department, would allow the organization to renovate the space and open to the public in 2015.

“It’s a shame that so many years later there still isn’t a physical space for children in the Bronx to explore and learn,” said Kirza Sanchez, who runs an after-school program at Abraham House on Willis Avenue, which offers convicted criminals an alternative to jail and serves them and their families.

Sanchez said arts programs are particularly important today because city schools are slashing funding for the arts to meet the demands of new city, state and federal standards.

Nearly 70 percent of public schools in the Bronx have no certified art teacher, according to the Annual Arts in Schools Report 2012-2013, from the city’s Department of Education. The Report is based on the school’s response to the Annual Arts Education Survey and on data collected by the Department of Education.

While the Bronx Museum of the Arts offers family activities and guided tours for schools, those programs are “more contemporary art,” said Fatima Schoenfelder, who works as an educator in the Bronx Children’s Museum and a tour guide at the art museum. Parents who attended a seasonal program at the art museum called a “Family Affair,” asked for more children’s activities, Schoenfelder recalled.

That’s the niche the children’s museum seeks to fill.

As Bronx borough president, Adolfo Carrión, initiated planning for the children’s museum in 2005. Though Carrión set aside $500,000 in funding and formed an advisory board, and though Precht says the current borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. is “totally committed” to the museum, progress has been slow.

The children’s museum started small, with efforts to bring dance, music and mask-making classes into the community, until Precht was hired in 2010.

Precht, who has worked in low-income community and non-profit organizations for more than three decades, started to raise funds not only to create a permanent location, but also to support artists and plan exhibits.

The purple school bus gives children a taste of exhibits to come.

The purple school bus gives children a taste of exhibits to come.

Now the museum collaborates with community centers in an ambitious summer program, and runs a museum-on-wheels that brings exhibits to schools and community events.

On a sunny but chilly Wednesday morning in November, a purple school bus decorated with giant photographs of children parked in front of P.S. 11 on Ogden Avenue in Highbridge. Children clambered aboard to view a diorama of the Bronx and Harlem rivers, complete with a model of the historic High Bridge, which spans the Harlem just blocks from their school.

“We travel to about 22 schools with the bus a year,” said Natalie Wood, the children’s museum’s program director. Before every visit, the museum team prepares lesson plans, evaluation forms, posters, fun fact cards and other materials to be handed out to teachers.

The school visit is not the only program related to the children’s neighborhood.

Beginning in 2010, each summer, the museum has worked with local community centers to sponsor a program called “Dream Big,” in which first-, second- and third-graders work with Bronx artists for four to six weeks on a common theme.

Last summer, Andrea Enriquez, 10, from the Mexican American Students’ Alliance (MASA) was part of “Dream Big! For Our Rivers,” which used visual and performing arts to teach children about rivers and the animals who live in and around them.

The program made her aware of environmental concerns. “When they finish talking, we have to go back to the bus to see if there is any garbage around,” Andrea said. “So we have to pick it up.”

Heiley Gil, 10, said Dream Big offered her her first-ever chance to fashion sculptures from clay.

“I wanted to try because I never did it,” Heiley said, gesturing like a real artist. “We made these big sculptures. Everyone got to do their own style.”

After she finished her sculpture, a brown-and-white beaver, Heiley placed it at the entrance to Abraham House.

“We have art in school but we only have 15 or 10 minutes,” Heiley said. “But in this program, we got to move our bodies, to paint, to listen to the teacher, to use the clay and to do some fabulous painting.”

She said she looks forward to visiting the museum in its permanent home.

“I’d like to go,” Heiley said, “because they really help you how to make stuff that you’ve never done before.”