Oakland’s storied institution for children’s arts overcomes challenges to launch a new phase.
Courtesy of Catherine Malicdem
Standing at the corner of Clay and 17th streets in Uptown Oakland in the nearly 5,000-square-foot new space for the Museum of Children’s Arts, Executive Director Quincy McCoy can barely contain his excitement. He has
big plans for what can be done in here with the additional studio downstairs and the upstairs offices.
“I can’t wait to have our first exhibit here,” he says, surveying the light, open room with 25-foot ceilings, an area much bigger than MOCHA’s previous segmented space in Old Oakland tucked away in a courtyard and shrouded from view; this new space has high street visibility. “This space is so much better for exhibits.”
Jill Vialet, a founder of the 24-year-old institution that celebrates hands-on art and creativity for kids, believes MOCHA has overcome recent challenges that made the museum look as though it had lost organizational focus. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s to blame, but one can speculate that controversy from cancelling the scheduled showing of A Child’s View from Gaza, featuring violent imagery by Palestinian children, in 2011 had something to do with it. Compounding the issue was that, for a while, executive directors came and went.
“We didn’t have good luck in leadership for a few years, and that affects morale and starts a very negative spiral,” says Marion Fredman, a MOCHA board member. “We’re definitely recovering.”
“MOCHA got knocked off its pedestal,” McCoy agrees. “I want to put it back up there.”
And he’s already started. When McCoy became executive director at the end of 2012, he initially considered completely overhauling MOCHA. But he realized there was a lot f that people still loved about the organization, so he focused on changes that would reinvigorate the existing model, including moving to the new space. Other changes have been to commission a new MOCHA logo, one that shows a color splash with a child’s hand in the middle. MOCHA also has a new website; and the museum has added an ‘s’ to the end of ‘art’ in its name—Museum of Children’s Arts—to reflect McCoy’s desire for the museum to go beyond the more traditional visual arts to embrace more contemporary
“I like that ‘s’ on arts,” Fredman says. “Art is more than visual. I’d like the place to be hopping and buzzing and music coming out of one corner and theater sets being painted in another. I’d like there to be something for school-age kids.”
McCoy wants that as well. He plans to start a MOCHA After Dark program and some after-school programs. McCoy is driven by MOCHA’s mission because he believes art can provide something vital and even life-saving to children.
“Art has healing power,” he says. “A lot of these young people [in Oakland] have been infected by the collateral damage of all the violence around them. We want to reach out to the kids in East and West Oakland. They need a safe place.”
McCoy, a tall, easygoing man who grew up in Utica, N.Y., and now lives in Oakland with his wife and son, saw a need for this safe place when he was a consultant and board member at Youth Radio. Along with his work at Youth Radio, McCoy has been a radio programmer, an editor, a vice president at MTV, chief of operations at Salon, and the author of a book, No Static: A Guide to Creative Radio Programming. McCoy’s background and his approach—an unusual assortment of skills for the typical nonprofit executive director—make Fredman confident McCoy is the right leader for MOCHA.
“He’s a larger-than-life person—very dynamic and very bold and not afraid to ask for things,” she says. “He’s somebody with vision and enthusiasm and ability. His background with Youth Radio and all these music stations is brilliantly eclectic. We need a cheerleader and someone with energy.”
Founded in 1989, MOCHA already reaches about 25,000 kids and their family members each year through activities such as open studios, field trips, and art camps. MOCHA also sends teaching artists into eight libraries and 21 schools, where they help teachers integrate arts into their curriculum.
MOCHA brings together two passions—public education and the arts—for Oakland City Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who served as a board member at MOCHA for nine years.
Schaaf witnessed the power of MOCHA, she says, when she observed a teaching artist work with a class of English-language learners. It was clear from what the kids said and did that they gained confidence by participating in the art exercises.
“There is a power in visual expression that offers children who don’t have the language to express their ideas and feelings,” Schaaf says. “Images can do that for them.”
MOCHA’s mission is based on the idea that art improves children’s lives, while enhancing their critical thinking skills and cognitive and emotional development.
“Art is education. It’s not a frill,” Fredman says. “It’s an amazing vehicle for self-expression, but also for learning. If kids learn to think creatively, they’re better students and better citizens.”
In addition to serving on the board,
Fredman once worked for MOCHA. Vialet recruited Fredman after reading about her department store for kids, Such a Business.
“She came over and pitched me, and I fell for it,” says Fredman about Vialet, who after leaving MOCHA, went on to start Playworks, an organization that promotes play and recess in public schools. “I believed in her and her cause. She decided I was going to be on her board, and Jill is very smart and determined when she makes up her mind.”
Now Vialet, McCoy’s mentor and friend, has made up her mind that McCoy is the person to keep MOCHA growing and evolving.
“For me, Quincy is this great combination with his background in the arts and non-profit management,” she says. “He’s staying true to MOCHA’s roots but inventing something new.”
McCoy wants MOCHA to reach even more kids and have more programs onsite. Art, he thinks, can be healing, giving kids more emotional stability and a way to deal with their problems and to communicate better with others.
“Art can be an antidote to the violence,” he says. “It’s kind of psychic medicine.”
Many kids and families attest to the therapeutic nature of MOCHA and its programs. Victoria Ames, 6, is one of those kids who has benefited. Her mother, Catherine Ames, started bringing her to MOCHA when she was just 18 months old. Now Victoria’s 4-year-old brother, Isiah, and her 2-year-old sister, Saiph, come along as well. School gets out early on Wednesday, so the Ames kids spend a couple of hours at MOCHA. Sometimes there’s a theme, such as insects or space, and the kids create something connected to the theme using the paint wall, Play-Doh, or clay. Ames says in all the years she has been bringing her kids to MOCHA, she has only seen an activity repeated once.
Victoria loves MOCHA and making art. MOCHA offers a great resource for parents wanting to nurture creativity in their kids.
“The teachers are always so encouraging and friendly. I can’t say enough about them and what they’ve taught my kids about making art out of anything,” Ames says. “My kids are so close in age, but developmentally in different places, so they can all work at their own pace as opposed to competing for my attention and fighting over materials like they would be at home.”
MOCHA offers a real service to Oakland, Schaaf says, by giving families a space to be creative. She remembers her reaction when her son was little and her mother-in-law wanted to give them an easel.
“We said no way—we can’t fit that in our little house,” says Schaaf, who uses an image of MOCHA’s paint wall as her computer screensaver. “I told her she could make a donation to MOCHA. We don’t have space for the explosive creativity our children have, but MOCHA permits that.”
Vialet feels excited to see MOCHA moving in its current direction.
“I left MOCHA right when I was pregnant with my oldest kid,” she says. “She’s 17 now and looking at colleges. She’s getting ready to launch. MOCHA has definitely had some struggles, but it’s having new life breathed into it, and MOCHA is ready to launch.”