Children and teachers by an abstract painting in the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain (image by Adam Jones courtesy and via Flickr)

In 2018, I was part of an exhibition, Makeshift at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, curated by Michelle Grabner and Karen Patterson. JMKAC had invited the artists involved to come a few days early to install. There was a collegial atmosphere. Some of the other artists were parents as well, and we were feeling the strange liberation that comes from leaving the kids with your partner to go install your work. I finished early and had time to explore JMKAC’s collections.

I walked through a gallery and there was a young woman sitting on her knees addressing a circle of cross-legged four-year-olds. “Why would you want to vote?” The kids shot their arms into the air, wiggling hard, butts barely touching the ground. They were excited, they all had an answer. “Voting means you get to say what happens!” There is nothing like the idea of autonomy for a small child whose entire existence is dictated by adults. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a room with people so excited about the idea of voting — maybe November 2008? The kids continued to discuss the process by which their votes turn into the world they will live in. I asked what was going on and was told that JMKAC had a preschool program.

A funny thing occurred to me as I reflected on my own experiences as a small child sitting cross-legged in a circle and being asked to participate in discussions. For me, this happened in Sunday school. “Who is the father of Jesus?” “Who can list three commandments?” “What happens if we don’t do as the lord teaches us?” The indoctrination of obedience and shame starts early in the Catholic church. Those lessons about hell and judgement can last for years. I know now my mom didn’t believe in what I was learning there, but it offered something she needed desperately — free childcare.

Installation view of the Makeshift exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (2018) (image by the author)

On one of my long walks around the center’s neighborhood of Sheboygan, I noticed a yard sign that had the silhouette of the state of Wisconsin in red with a little blue circle in the middle to represent Milwaukee. It read, “The beating blue heart of Wisconsin. Vote 2018.” I knew I was in a bubble at the museum, but it is a bubble that leaches blue into the surrounding community.

It made me think, what if every regional museum could offer free or subsidized daycare that taught secular values about participatory democracy and culture? Small children being simultaneously educated about how their government works and being exposed to art and making. Use the model of the churches, offer up free childcare in exchange for a chance to proselytize and educate.

Subsidized childcare is not an idea the United States has embraced. Outside of religious institutions it is almost nonexistent, but it can greatly relieve the financial burden on families. When my older daughter was two, we qualified for a subsidized daycare in our neighborhood. Neighborhood women had started the daycare in the ‘70s and some of them were still there in the kitchen in their 80s, doling out hot lunches every day to toddlers. I paid $30 a week, and it was a lifesaver because you can’t pay a babysitter a decent wage with paintings you haven’t made yet. There used to be more of these neighborhood programs in Bushwick and Williamsburg but their buildings were sold to developers and the programs had nowhere to go. Lack of childcare is a problem everywhere in the US. We know that outcomes for children improve greatly when they attend high quality childcare early on.

In the last two years under the pandemic we’ve seen what life for working mothers looks like with no childcare. Among the artist friends I know who are also parents, it fell to the women to do the remote teaching. Their partners aren’t patriarchs, but just happened to be the working stiff with the regular income, and who argues with a steady paycheck? Community-based childcare supports not just women artists but all working people, so why not have it come with a curriculum that comes from cultural organizations? Come on, the behemoth Fox News spews misinformation 24/7 in every nursing home in the country; it’s time to start educating future voters early that they matter, that their voices can be heard, and how the political and legal systems actually work. If we do this, we can help families and children while saving this democracy through empowering its future citizens.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY.

One reply on “Museums Could Help Families and Children While Saving Our Democracy”

  1. I like the idea, but it’s a bandaid approach to a larger, systemic problem and also raises questions about the risks of legitimizing the use of museums for propagandistic purposes, especially w.r.t. museums mostly funded by the 1% or governments they control. If we can’t get schools to teach this stuff in school, what makes us think we can get museums – which are even less directly answerable to the public – to do it in the ways we’d prefer?

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