Founded in part by Eric Carle, the author and illustrator of more than 70 books, including the 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art,
which opened in 2002 in western Massachusetts, is the first full-scale
U.S. museum devoted to national and international picture book art. The
museum’s goal is to foster connections between visual and verbal
literacy. In its three galleries dedicated to rotating exhibitions of
picture book, the Museum has had exhibitions on Avant Garde Russian
Children’s Books, Leo Lionni, and currently the illustrations from the
Wizard of Oz. The Museum also provides a hands-on art studio, an
auditorium for performances and lectures, a comfortable library for
reading and storytelling, a café, and a museum shop stocked with old and
new picture book. In this interview, H. Nicholas B. Clark, founding
director, talks about the legacy of children’s book art and how a museum
of this magnitude came to be.
Steven Heller: It seems that a museum like the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is long overdue? Would you agree?
H. Nichols B. Clark: Absolutely. The Carle is the first
full-scale museum devoted to children’s book illustration. Much
wonderful material is housed in libraries, so the good news is it has
been well taken care of. But the frustrating news is that these
institutions have limited, if any, exhibition space to provide an arena
for exhibition. Illustration has long been relegated to stepchild status
in the arts in America, so it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy
that museums would not take it seriously.
Heller: How did the wheels get greased to create such an ambitious museum?
Clark: Eric and his wife Barbara visited Japan in the early
1980s and were surprised to learn that there were at least 20 museums in
that country dedicated to picture book art. This discovery planted the
seed. It was not until the early 1990s that they became really serious
about bringing the dream to reality.
Eric felt that he had done very well by publishing books and wanted to
give back to the industry, the publishers, the artists and authors, the
booksellers and the public. The initial idea was a 1,500 square-foot
space that would go into an existing building. Then the real pipe dream
took hold, and the benchmark became accommodating three school buses a
day. This morphed into the current 40,000 square-foot facility with
auditorium, art studio, three galleries, reading library and café
comprising the public spaces. Eric and Barbara provided the majority of
the funding to build the building and get the museum off the ground
programmatically. Penguin and HarperCollins publishers were major
Heller: Even though children's book art is, in some sense, prescribed by
editors and publishers based on what they believe children want, there
are many different styles, mannerisms and approaches to it. Do you have a
particular curatorial philosophy about what should and should not be
Clark: Coming from a background as an art historian and museum
curator, quality is the first and foremost criterion—and that, of
course, is highly subjective. There are Caldecott winners that meet my
standards, and those that don’t. The work can be visually complex or
very simple, and each presents its own set of standards. Like any
discipline, there is bad, good, better and best, and I hope that my
sensibility tends to the top two categories. Just because something is
commercially popular does not necessarily mean that it merits
recognition in a museum (no elaboration except perhaps Thomas Kinkade!).
Heller: You've focused on historical manifestations of
children's art. Is it your mission, so to speak, to develop the
historical foundation for this art form?
Clark: Part of what I have been trying to do is to honor some
of the grand masters of the genre while they are still alive—so the
major exhibitions have been skewed in that direction. And yes, some of
the more synthetic exhibitions (Russian, Artists of Margaret Wise Brown)
have been historical in basis. This speaks to the desire to present a
broad chronological spectrum of children’s book illustration. We do a
lot of programming with younger artists, providing the opportunity for
our visitors to meet and interact with them.
Heller: Children's art has been used in the past (and perhaps is used in
the present too) for educational purposes—sometimes good, other times
more dubious, as in ideological art in totalitarian countries. You've
exhibited Russian Revolutionary children's art. Do you distinguish
between good and bad?
Clark: The Russian exhibition certainly
provided a fascinating dialogue between the fortunes of art as shaped by
politics. To tell this story, it was logical to exhibit art that may
have been compromised, as it were, by political dictates or dictators.
Heller: The evolution of leading Russian children's book creator
Vladimir Lebedev’s career provides a powerful case in point; he was
forced to choose between his art and his life. Consequently, he
capitulated to political dictates and his art suffered for it—but he
Clark: In certain instances with Eric, we have the ability to
exhibit the art he rejected beside the final piece. It is very important
for the visitor to understand that the artist herself can be
dissatisfied with what she has created and out it goes. Sometimes you
have to display bad art to enable the visitor to try to understand what
constitutes good art.
Heller: Speaking of good and bad, how in a museum context do you (or do
you?) address notions of taboo? I remember decades ago Tomi Ungerer did a
book with a snake; prior to that snakes were taboo.
Clark: I am not sure we have crossed that Rubicon yet! We did exhibit the art from Jerry Pinkney’s The Old African
(his most recent collaboration with Julius Lester), and we were acutely
aware that the subject matter was going to be more difficult—not
taboo—than what we had previously exhibited. We created signs for the
entrance of the gallery, and all my visitor services staff was primed to
alert visitors. We were very gratified by the gratitude. The only
really negative mail Eric has ever received was about two very generic
nude figures in one of his books, Draw Me a Star. We had shown
nudes on occasion (Sendak to be sure), and I don’t recall any
resistance. On the other hand, we have not set out to address a
controversial issue through the lens of children’s book
Heller: So many children's books have become icons of sorts.
What are the key components of not only immediate success but longevity?
Clark: Quality; the marriage of text and image; and how a book
gets passed down through the generations. One of my daughter’s favorite
books is Caps for Sale (she is now 21 and still has me read it
to her), so I was fascinated to read letter after letter from parents
to Esphyr Slobodkina about what a magical book it was. Goodnight Moon
succeeded despite Anne Carroll Moore’s dismissal. There is that magical
quality that strikes a chord and endures. Conversely, I think it is
very telling that the vast majority of “celebrity” books have a meteoric
existence—with emphasis on the crashing and burning—because they are
trading on fame and not the deep understanding of what it might take to
create a really good book (I’d see Lithgow and Curtis as notable
Heller: Your current exhibit deals with Oz. Is there something about this theme that is the holy grail of children's art?
Clark: I guess Good versus Evil is a pretty
universal theme. The genesis was to celebrate L. Frank Baum and W. W.
Denslow’s 150th birthdays and try to articulate the evolution of the art
of this remarkable book further enhanced, of course, by the 1939 movie.
Given its popular artistic appeal, the exhibition also provided us with
an opportunity to explore how different artists interpreted the same
Heller: As director, do you have a five-year plan regarding what you want the audience to take away from the Carle museum?
Clark: We want the visitor to leave realizing that the Carle
is about far more than Eric Carle. We want them to understand before
they arrive that we are not a children’s museum, but the next step in a
journey of museum experiences. We want people to realize that they
cannot flunk museum-going. Sadly, too many people think that
appreciating art is a very esoteric science. On a very basic level it
can be a wonderful way for families to engage in a fulfilling experience
if they ask themselves three questions: What is going on in this
picture? What do you see that makes you say that? And what more do you
see? These ideas constitute the “Visual Thinking Strategies,” codified
by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine, and are intended to help the
beginning viewer of art find a platform of engagement. This is exactly
what we hope to do.
Heller: How do you feel you're doing given your goal?
Clark: We are making progress with the first two assumptions
[in the five-year plan above]. Making us “The Carle”—like The
Guggenheim, The Whitney, The Frick—will take time. I do think that many
people are grateful for the toolkit we provide [the “Visual Thinking
Strategies”], and the assurance that looking at art is a subjective
experience. We’ve also enjoyed a tremendous response to our professional
development programs, teaching these issues as well as a more
innovative way of reading books with children.
That’s the key—reading with rather than reading to.
The audience learns about the parts of the book, the rationales for
artistic design, and so on. It’s pretty cool to hear a three-year old
talk about the gutter and the spine of a book—we do honor the integrity
of the finished product within our walls as well.
Heller: What benefit is there in exhibiting children's book art?
Isn't the final product—the book—the real art? Aren't the raw images
simply components that lead up to the purpose and function?
Clark: Of course. Yes, we are literally deconstructing the
book, but we are doing so to try to underscore that in most cases the
art can stand on its own. By honoring it in a gallery situation, it does
merit being let out of the cellar of disrespect! This honoring is one
of Eric’s primary motivations for creating the museum. So call us
heretics, but I do think we are doing something very important—not only
for the art but for providing many, many people who are nervous about
looking at art with a very reassuring entry point. People like what they
First impressions are the key to how we perceive the world, and are perceived by it. I’ve found that the two most effective and fascinating aspects of first impressions are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Clarity and Mystery.
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