Conference of the Animals & 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City

The Panorama of New York City at the Queens Museum of Art. Courtesy OptimumPx

“FOR a long time the animals had been watching the strange doings of people, and the day finally came when it was just too much for them!”The Animals’ Conference (1949)

The Queens Museum’s best known artifact is a panoramic model of New York City, which was built to honor the Big Apple’s iconic municipal infrastructure. The metropolitan replica (the largest architectural scale model in the world)  was initially displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair and became a sensation with visitors from all over the world. The subject of the ’64 World’s Fair was “Peace Through Understanding.” Concepts of globalization and cultural innovation were highlighted throughout the fair’s many exhibits and attractions. The building that is now home to the Queens Museum was the New York Pavilion for both the 1939 and ’64 World’s Fairs. It was also the temporary home of the United Nations General Assembly from 1946-50, during which time the UN facilitated major diplomatic and humanitarian actions such as the creation of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the partition of Korea and the authorization for the creation of Israel.

Themes of diplomacy, collectivism and sociocultural development are the foundation of two site-specific exhibitions, The Conference of the Animals and 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City. Both of these installations will eventually be on view at the Queens Museum (currently on pause due to New York City’s shelter-in-place regulations), adorning and encasing the 45 foot walls of the gallery where the panorama of New York City resides.

Digital sketch of Ulrike Müller’s The Conference of the Animals for the Queens Museum’s Large Wall, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Queens Museum.

The Conference of the Animals is an in-progress mural by Ulrike Müller and 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City is an exhibition, curated by Amy Zion, of children’s drawings responding to social and cultural themes related to New York City over the past 120 years. Müller’s mural takes its name from The Animals’ Conference (1949), a post-WWII satirical children’s book by German author Erich Kästner. In the book, a faction of animals form a union to save the planet. The book’s premise was inspired by the ineffectiveness of international diplomacy in the wake of the devastating global war. The mural utilizes a combination of geometric shapes and organic forms to suggest a stylistic portrayal of animal figures.

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Ponies by Mario Petrucci, Einstein-Hof, Vienna. Courtesy Herzi Pinki

Large semi-abstract murals became a popular form of public art in the aftermath of WWII. Müller’s The Conference of the Animals is reminiscent of the modernist aesthetic that artists from the The Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Arts Project employed to liven up civic infrastructure and boost morale throughout the American cultural landscape. Additionally, The Conference of the Animals is in historical dialogue with the unique democratic socialist urban planning of Post-WWI Vienna, known as ‘Red Vienna.’ In 1923, Vienna’s socialist municipal government replaced dilapidated and depressed working class slums with well funded and aesthetically pleasing modernist housing structures, which rejuvenated public confidence and the economy, both of which needed a revival after the war. These residential buildings featured avant-garde designs, ample space for communal recreation and shared facilities like cooperative stores, libraries, childcare centers and schools (Day, 2018). Another element that defined these structures were public artworks, including sculptures that featured realistic and anthropomorphic animal motifs.  Animal imagery has been a staple of public housing design from Vienna to Chicago (see: Bruegmann, 2018) to Pasir Ris (see: Voon, 2019). Each of these spaces combine form and function to foster a sense of collective identity and pride within their respective locations. Journalist, Claire Voon, writes about how Singapore’s seminal playground designer, Khor Ean Ghee, created jovial environments that reflect constructive feelings of self and collective value. “Playgrounds, often strategically built at the heart of each estate, became one way to foster a new sense of belonging, as sites where neighbors, regardless of race and age, could congregate” (ibid, 2019).

Ulrike Müller, Assorted, 2020, collagraph, 17 x 13.25 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Müller’s art installations develop a lively interaction within the architectural space by prompting the viewer’s eye to follow along with the curvilinear, diagonal, vertical and/or horizontal lines of the substrate on which her art hangs. At large, Müller’s oeuvre of wall installations, prints and enamel paintings have a playful flair and are reminiscent of the pre-cut shape collages, building blocks and Froebel’s gifts that many young children engage with in the initial phases of their artistic education (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). This formal analysis is evident in her collograph print Assorted (2020), which resembles two animals (one avian and one canine) in profile view. By breaking down her imagery into simpler forms and shapes, Müller stresses the clear legibility of her subject matter and allows for us to read her figures in a pronounced manner.

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Tove Jansson’s Who will comfort Toffle? 1960.

Another analogy that can be made from Müller’s work is its reference to the art of classic children’s book illustrations. Beyond appropriating the title of her mural from a children’s book, her color palette for The Conference of the Animals is inspired by Tove Jansson’s Moomin series of picture books. While planning out her mural, Müller built her palette around Jannson’s use of colors in Who will comfort Toffle? (1960) .

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Louise Berliawsky, (no title), c. 1905. Courtesy of the American Art Collaborative.

The children’s artwork in 120 Years of Children Drawing New York includes some very early examples of works from artists who grew up to become renowned in the fine art world. One example is an interior scene by a young girl named Louise Berliawsky, who grew up to become renowned for her modernist monochromatic, wooden sculptures under the name Louise Nevelson. Children’s artwork had an important influence on modernism, especially in post-World War eras when artists like Jean Dubuffet and Karel Appel were moved by the effervescent, yet carefully considered treatment, scale, perspective and details of childhood drawings. Müller was inspired by the collection of children’s drawings selected for the exhibition (a portion of which are from the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Arts New York).

In a recent online artist’s talk, she mentioned the effectiveness that children’s drawings have within our culture at large. The context of 120 Years of Children Drawing New York provided Müller with a deeper understanding of how children’s art was employed to support diplomatic and socially conscious efforts across society. Similar to the way governments incorporated the art and design of professional artists into everyday life between the World Wars (WPA, Red Vienna et al); the display of children’s art was a strategy governments used to enhance social and emotional welfare. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lobbied for aid to support displaced and orphaned children by using children’s artwork to stir emotions and enlist empathetic responses from the public. These efforts paralleled the rise of progressive art education, where the pedagogical focus is on student-centered learning and experiential development, rather than didactic instruction (see: Grieve, 2018). Instead of having children copy from reproductions or schematics; educators “encouraged children to develop at their own pace, explore a variety of materials and methods and favor process over product” (ibid, 2018). It is evident that children use mark making as a way of processing events and reflecting their place and experiences in the world around them.

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Tony Bonada (age 12, American). Collection of the Children’s Museum of Art, CMA0688.FR. Courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Art, New York.

The Conference of the Animals and 120 Years of Children Drawing New York surmises that all children’s art has something important to communicate and that we should be paying serious attention to what they are saying. The way children symbolically convey their observations and insights about the world changes as they build artistic skills and conceptual knowledge. Art education scaffolds the progression of children’s artistic development through phases of representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials (see: Louis, 2005). A multidimensional model of artistic development, proposed by art educator and teacher of teachers, Linda Louis, recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages as Lowenfeld (1947) previously asserted (for a more detailed description of Lowenfeld and Louis’ theories, see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

The crux of education and diplomacy is to foster a better framework for current and future generations to thrive in equal, equitable and justice centered environments. The anthropomorphic protagonists in The Animals’ Conference understood that intergovernmental policies needed to change, in order to support the world’s children who were “caught in the web of wars, strikes and famines” (Fischer, 1953). Successful works of public art and communal design projects teach us that it is possible to create something that is both beautiful and beneficial to collectivist culture. A good art education centered around nurturing experiential learning, empathy and imaginative innovation is a means to achieve “peace through understanding.”

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bruegmann, Robert. 2018. Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Day, Meagan. “We Can Have Beautiful Public Housing.” Jacobin, 13 Nov. 2018.

Fischer, Marjorie. “A Better World: The Animals’ Conference.” New York Times, 12 July 1953, Section BOOK, Page 18.

Grieve, Victoria M. 2018. “Little Cold Warriors: American Childhood in the 1950s.” London: Oxford University Press.

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR,

Müller, Ulrike. “The Conference of the Animals: An Artist’s Talk with Ulrike Müller.” Zoom, 29 April 2020. Presented by The Queens Museum and The Cooper Union School of Art.

Voon, Claire. “In Singapore, Playgrounds Are Capsules of National Identity.” Atlas Obscura, 11 June 2019.

Zhuang, Justin. Mosaic Memories: Remembering the Playgrounds Singapore Grew Up In. Singapore: In Plain Words (eBook).

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