As a Guest Services Associate at Crystal Bridges, I spent a deal of time on the front line—greeting visitors, distributing materials, and, on the quiet days, observing. After a few hundred hours in the lobby and galleries, I began to notice some trends: More often than not, guests pull the push doors when attempting to exit; someone has a sleepy meltdown near the conclusion of Preschool Playdates (usually a preschooler, but not always); and children enjoy contemporary art. This is not to say that our adult guests actively dislike contemporary art, but there is a clear division among that audience. Adults approach non-traditional art with one of two attitudes: they’re either open to it, or they’re not. Kids are just open. No artwork provided me with more hours of unofficial qualitative research than Claes Oldenburg’s late pop-art sculpture Alphabet/Good Humor. This artwork, a flesh-toned series of letters in the form of an ice cream bar, stands prominently between the main lobby and the Museum’s restaurant, Eleven. It’s hard to miss and rarely fails to provoke an immediate response. The Oldenburg has been described as “horrendous” and “disgusting.” It’s even been referred to as “a giant looming intestinal track.” The feedback has been delightfully vivid. Claes Oldenburg wasn’t necessarily setting out to cause an uproar when he created Alphabet/Good Humor, but he wasn’t aiming to please the world either. He later described the artwork that he and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, created, saying: “We want to communicate with the public, but on our own terms.” Many people may not understand what Claes Oldenburg was attempting to communicate through this particular sculpture—youth and adults alike. Understanding aside, kids absolutely love Alphabet/Good Humor. They point at it and gasp excitedly. A couple of the nimble ones have even tried to jump the stanchions and swing from the giant, dangling ice cream drop,
(NOTE: Please refrain from suspending yourself or others from the Oldenburg. It bums out our security staff in a very real way.) Children approach art with an unwavering lack of prejudice that seems lost to those of us without light-up shoes. There is no negativity, nor are there preconceived notions of beauty, talent, or value—there’s just wonder. I don’t presume to discourage museum-goers from forming an opinion. The new and different will not always be regarded with awe and enthusiasm. That said, it never hurts to take a moment to stop, observe, and really grasp the material…. Figuratively.