When she was still tucked into my coat in the Baby Bjorn, my favorite thing to brag about with my oldest daughter was that, by the time she was five months old, she had had her diaper changed in every major museum in New York City.  Now fourteen, and having been dragged halfway around the world to see art in Venice and France, and to every free museum day in the Hudson Valley, she is really beginning to take a shine to it.

Recently, we ventured to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

We wanted to go gallery hopping, and the kids were soooo into it. They were checking out the work, thinking deeply about it, coming up with interesting comments and conversations, being respectful of the space and its boundaries, not fighting or egging each other on.  Are we raising art lovers?!  

Our approach has always been to treat art viewing with the same sense of play that we would discover a new beach or playground.  I scan the space for things to show them, but also keep an open mind about what they might want to show me.  And as we talk about the things that we each find interesting, we start thinking about art in a really approachable way.

I mean, it’s true, I’m on my 5-year-old like white on rice to make sure he doesn’t disrespect the space or treat it like an actual playground.  But we’ve been kicked out of Picasso shows before, and lived to tell the tale.

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How To: Chelsea Gallery Hopping with Kids

Chelsea is probably one of the best day trips to Manhattan for art-loving (or wannabe art-loving) families with kids.  If you go on a Saturday, it’s usually pretty easy to find a free parking spot on the street.  If you have bad parking karma, there are garages, too.  The bulk of the art galleries are between 22nd and 27th Streets between 10th and 11th Avenues.  So the ideal is to park on 11th Avenues between 24th and 30th Streets.  If your kids are good walkers, park up at 9th Avenue and promise them a crepe at Le Grainne at the end of the day.

It’s impossible to predict what will be being shown, unless you’re really up on the scene, and you have prep yourself for things not always being G-rated.  When we went, it was to see the Mark Rothko show at Pace on 25th Street.  But as we wandered from there, we discovered artist Prabhavathi Meppayil, whose palette and attention to detail was almost the opposite of Rothko.  Another artist created an entire environment with squishy floor and these amorphous, crocheted spaces that we wandered inside and lounged in, barefoot.  Another show was of video paintings – scenes on a TV screen which sometimes barely moved.  Even outside on the street, there was art to see as we caught some guys installing a giant light box on the side of a building at the roof.

You don’t have to have a degree in art history or education in order to properly raise an art lover.  The conversation can be as simple as, “Hey, look, there’s your favorite color!”  Or, “Do you see a horse in this picture?” 

Art is accessible to anyone who is willing to find a way to relate to it.  Just bring your own experience.

The most kid-friendly part of Chelsea is that at either end of the gallery streets, you can hit someplace fun for the kids to blow off steam when they need to.  At 11th Avenue between 22nd and 24th Streets, there’s the Chelsea Water Park – a modernist playground with water sprinklers (on in summer months) and very surrealist climbing equipment (like upside down swings) that’s great for all ages.

At 10th Avenue and 23rd Street, there’s an entrance to the High Line, an abandoned railway turned high-brow park.  It’s crowded up there most of the time, but there are a lot of little gems to find, like an outdoor theater, a car turned garden, a statue of a realistically bizarre man in only his underpants, a café with ice cream, and the kind of benches you can run up and down.

Right beneath the High Line at the 23rd Street entrance is the Half King with delicious burgers, fish and chips, and an amazing brunch menu.  There’s no kids’ menu, but the mac and cheese is enough to feed everyone, and they didn’t charge us extra for sharing.  You definitely know you’re in Manhattan with the pricing, but hey, all the galleries were free, and the cocktails are strong enough to warrant an extra three bucks.  Cocktails and mac and cheese, what could be more family-friendly than that?

Now go raise an art lover.