Conversation with Susan Master-Karnik
on an interview with Pamela Gerloff
a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he
needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share
it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery
of the world we live in." -Rachel Carson
was ten years old, I went to New York City's Frick Museum
on a field trip sponsored by my public school. Built on Fifth
Avenue, this former residence of Henry Clay Frick is an amazing
place. It's full of art masterpieces by Rembrandt, Ingres,
Renoir, Fragonard, Boucher- all kinds of drop-your-mouth type
of things-in a setting that is on a human scale. As a child,
I was surprised that it wasn't a big, imposing museum like
the kind I had seen before; it was a grand house, with a parlor
and courtyard and a fountain and an outdoor garden. I had
never seen anything more beautiful in my whole life.
When my artistically-inclined niece Scottie
turned ten years old, I took her to the Frick Museum because
that's where my interest in the arts had started. Now, I
take all my nieces there, and to other museums-but not until
they are ten. At that age, they are old enough to begin
to think critically about the experience. When I took Danner,
another of my nieces, to see an exhibit of automobiles at
the Museum of Modern Art, she went wild about it. It was
the first time she had ever considered automobile design
When I walk through a museum, I can see
at a glance so much about the artist and the institution
by looking at the exhibition labels. At the Metropolitan
Museum, for example, you can identify right from the label
the years the artist was born and died, the year the piece
was created, when it came into the collection, and where
the funds came from to purchase it or who donated it. I
describe all these things to my nieces, and tie in the concept
of giving back to your community through art. I also take
pictures of our trip and put together a little album for
them, so they can remember it better.
We don't always just go to museums. We decide
together where we will go and what we will do. I like to
give them as much choice as possible. They can either fail
or win with their choices. I want them to learn that you
don't die from making a bad choice. Once we went to a Cuban
restaurant in Long Island City, another time to an afternoon
community party at P.S. 1, where artists and musicians were
just hanging out together.
On these outings, I learn about my nieces
through the questions they ask and the kinds of things they
like to do. They, in turn, learn about me and what I'm most
passionate and knowledgeable about. I am introducing them
to the experience that adults have passions, too.
The time we spend together is not just about
looking at art or having a new experience; there is an exchange
of ideas going on. You don't need to be an expert to do
it. All you have to do is talk and listen. You can ask,
"Which cathedral in this series of Monet paintings do you
like the best? What time of day is your favorite?" That's
how people learn to appreciate aesthetics, from their own
personal experience. You can make art-or any other topic-approachable,
not something people do only in school.
For me, the most important thing about this
kind of giving is that I am sharing my time and passion
in a caring relationship. I talk about the things that I
remember noticing when was a child, like the texture in
the women's gowns in the portraits and my absolute astonishment
when I realized that all of that could be done with paint.
All of us have our own interests to share.
My passions include museums and art. The difference between
giving my time in this way and giving something I can purchase
and wrap is immeasurable.
Susan Master-Karnik is a New York City
native, who has lived for the past two decades in the Boston
metropolitan area. She is a member of the board of More
Than Money, an overseer of DeCordova Museum and Sculpture
Park, and author of a picture book about the museum's founders.
She is also a singer-songwriter and a retired CFO.
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