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It’s hard to believe that Barbara Hunt McLanahan, who’s currently the executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA), didn’t actually visit an art museum until she was 15. Growing up in a “working class” family in Norfolk, England, in the 1970s, she wasn’t really exposed to art until she took a class trip to the famous Tate Britain museum in London. As her class roamed the galleries, she sat in a room of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko’s work and was so captivated that she didn’t leave the room for entire duration of the trip.
“I was completely blown away,” McLanahan, who’s also a mother-of-one, recalls. “It was the equivalent of a spiritual experience. We sat in this room and were looking at these paintings and just feeling so elated. I was like: ‘This is it—I’ve found it.’”
This life-changing experience, or “epiphany,” as McLanahan calls it, was instrumental in leading her into a long and successful career in the arts and her current role at CMA in downtown Manhattan.
“Having had the one experience in that one room, it changed my life,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to do at CMA—to give kids something that hopefully they can carry with them.”
CMA’s mission of “introducing children and their families to the transformative power of the arts by providing opportunities to make art side-by-side with working artists” is what drew McLanahan to the position, which she’s held since February 2013. And even before she became the executive director, the “transformative power of the arts” has always been at the forefront of not only her career, but also her life.
Among her many accomplishments, McLanahan helped run Visual AIDS during the late 90s, the organization responsible for creating the famous red ribbon symbol at the height of the AIDS crisis. Additionally, she has served as executive director for the Judd Foundation, Artists Space, and London’s Camerawork Gallery + Darkroom, and, during the 90s, was a member of a group named “Godzilla” which focused on lobbying museums to include Asian artists.
“I’m actually half Chinese and my husband’s Jewish, so diversity and making sure that we represent is really important to me, equally in the staffing of the museum and in the audience of the museum,” McLanahan explains. “At CMA we are committed to equality, opportunity, and to diversity.”
McLanahan’s dedication to equality and raising awareness of social issues transcends her roles as both museum director and as a mother to her 8-year-old daughter and CFO (Chief Fun Officer) of the museum, Jade—and, in fact, she often uses Jade as a “sounding board” for new ideas at CMA.
“Jade coming to the museum obviously influences my work because I actually take her opinion on a lot of things,” McLanahan says. “I think that the values that I have in parenting are very similar to the values that I have professionally and ethically in the jobs that I try to do at CMA.”
McLanahan’s personal and professional values clearly include her down-to-earth and passionate approach to daily life at CMA. As executive director, McLanahan provides the museum with strategic direction and vision to make sure that everything is on track, and she also spends a large portion of her time making sure that fundraising goals are being met, as well as meeting with the CMA staff regularly to provide guidance. However, her favorite task is interacting with young museum guests.
“I think my favorite aspect of working at the museum is just hearing laughter,” McLanahan says. “All I have to do is walk out into the museum and I’m having the best day, because every day is different and every child is different. So the best part is watching the kids engage in making art, enjoying themselves, finding out who they are, and discovering themselves.”
To learn more about CMA and its programming for kids and families, visit cmany.org.