Tomoko Kuta and Perry Vasquez

Recorded January 22, 2020 Archived January 22, 2020 39:58 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddf000458


Tomoko Kuta (53) speaks with her friend, collaborator, and colleague Perry Vasquez (60) about their roles at the New Children's Museum, designing art for children, and their own childhood memories.

Subject Log / Time Code

TK and PV recall their first meeting, and PV becoming the first contributing artist and educator to join the New Children's Museum board. They discuss PV's influence on the museum board as a "steering entity" for the museum.
PV and TK speak about "experience design" for children. PV recalls being commissioned by the museum for "Animal Action," and describes the thought process of making artwork for children.
PV discusses influences in his artistic practice, and describes the way children approach new items, ideas, and possibilities with curiosity and imagination.
PV recalls the Don McLean song "Vincent" influencing his curiosity about art as a teen. TK shares memories of drawing at an early age, while waiting in hospital waiting rooms.
PV and TK discuss art as problem-solving and release, and how this translates to the NCM.
TK remembers her first day of school in the U.S. at age 4, and the process of adjusting and adapting to the U.S. and later, U.K. customs growing up.
TK speaks about her family today. TK and PV reflect on social interactions at the museum, and the role of the NCM in society.
TK speaks about the ways parenting has shifted, and how the NCM let's kids take risks and learn. They discuss the concept of "investing in failure," and "letting kids be kids."


  • Tomoko Kuta
  • Perry Vasquez

Recording Location

The New Children's Museum

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type

Fee for Service


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00:01 I'm tomoko kuta. I am 53 and today is January 22nd 2020. I am at the new Children's Museum and I'm with Perry Vasquez Vasquez. Sorry and my relationship to you is that we work together. We become friends colleagues and you're trying to get me to be an artist again if they haven't checked up on that lately, but my name is Perry Vasquez. I made 60 today's date is January 22nd 2020 wear it with the new Children's Museum in San Diego, California. I'm speaking with tomoko kuta and tomoko as a friend and collaborator and Confidant as well.

00:49 So I was trying to think of when we first met and I can't remember cuz I've known you for so it didn't so it would have been you started in 2012. I think I came on the end of 2011. But really I kicked into about the same time that Joanne and so was due on the board at the time so we both knew so we were probably both very maybe somewhat overwhelmed by all good do people in faces in the names cuz I didn't realize you were a new board member cuz you just seem to have a real strong presence among set crazy group of people and you always spoke clearly about the Arts about the museum that was important you often jumped in and clarified when there was a need for clarification you were that voice of reason

01:49 Because it makes me to take me back to when I was first asked to be on the board first artist on the board of the of the museum by by Rachel teagle and I was hesitant because I know that the museum is looking for a new Ed and I thought they're going to be looking for someone who's strong me biased towards business and perhaps not as much toward creativity and I wondered if I don't know and I don't know why I had this in my mind, but I did and I ask myself do I want to get myself into a situation like that. Can I have an impact? Can I affect that situation? Can I get overtime because I make it meaningful for not just myself, but for the rest of the meeting of the board, so I thought a lot about it and I came back and I decided yes to get an opportunity to pass up.

02:39 That's really interesting cuz you were very effective and it maybe we should get to the question about having you explain a little bit about who you are and why that you know, Roll On The Board might be a little bit different. Well professionally. I'm an artist and an educator so

02:59 That's subjective Lee. That's what recommended me is a board member.

03:07 It is and yeah, so that the answer your question and I believe animal art with Lawrence when Lauren Lockhart was here that time she was born pop and so it was essentially an installation that involve the kind of role playing for kids animal role playing for the kids with costumes and all recordings and Dino plush plushie stuff.

03:42 So that was my that was my contribution to as an artist. And then after that that was Rachel's last exhibit here and then as she was leaving she asked me to be on the board. Did she ever explain to you why she reached out to you in particular and had confidence in me for some unexplainable reason. I just don't I don't know why but she she did I'm happy that it turned out on the board of the central cultural De La Raza in the mid-90s and that was a good experience, but the difference between that organization and disorganization is very big and I mean, I mean, it's up the new children's museum has a lot more resources and the board was a much more potent bored.

04:42 And the level of commitment on the board in the enthusiasm on the board actually once I got on the board was very attractive and it kept me in the orbit of the museum things happening you're touching upon a topic that I love to talk about because you know, I work here at the Museum and obviously I straddle the world the visitor, you know to visit engagement the artist, you know, those talented people such as yourself that we get to commission and bring on board and then how we govern ourselves and turn away. So if that's not just a staff at the board and I think a lot of people don't realize how much influence the board has over the organization in particular the executive director and and how that actually plays out, you know into our day-to-day like a board in our case doesn't tell us what to do, you know, what kind of activities or who. Commission but they generally steer the organization.

05:43 And I think sometimes people don't realize that you know, and and so we're accountable to the board. The board is kind of, you know, our fiduciary support her and you know, make sure that we're following all the rules that when I saw you speak up and ask questions and clarify when there seem to be two sides about something but people can come to a resolution. I just thought like you would this most natural person who can cut to the chase directly to as you said, you know, some pretty powerful people cuz that's who they are on the board and just kind of spell things out and I found that really really refreshing.

06:30 Perry The Peacemaker, I think that I've always been that way and I think your perspective Art Museum and how we run ourselves to the state of something that I think about a lot. It's not that we're missing it today, but there are a lot of business minded people on the board and their that's important, you know, we don't we talk about ourselves as I'm even though our nonprofit We Run ourselves like a business but our our end game isn't creating, you know things and selling them, you know, we sell tickets and admission, you know, so people can have experiences but it's different with about the Arts course everybody Museum.

07:19 And one which has become more important the last I'm not going to say 10-15 years old may have gone back further than that. I can remember the idea of experience design talking about experience design and ride around 2,000 that time I was an intern in a cognitive science lab UCSD working under a professor professor Kirsch. And so they you know, we web design is based on user experience and how do you accommodate that? And so the other others other academics and other people in the fields were talking about how experience design can be brought to public spaces and then the course there were academics in the field of museums who were writing about that in terms of how museums operate and so I had some passing knowledge of that not enough to be an authority but enough to be curious enough to maybe ask leading questions into

08:20 To know when that issue popped up. It was an important one that should be addressed and remember also feel feeling very good about

08:30 Having Megan come in Megan Dickerson come into the museum in it and her deep experience and knowledge in that field of study was very reassuring but also, yes the visitor experience and it's it's right. It's there's two different visitors here. I mean, you have the kids and you have the adults and those are two different radically different experiences. So what was it like being commissioned by the museum for animal art as an artist and I'm sure you're you know, we were thinking through all these things. Okay the kids what are the kids going to do very much a collaboration. So

09:10 You know, I had done some.

09:15 Activities called photo actions in the basic leaves

09:20 Interactive photo booths that I'd set up at museums and parties and things like that and my invitation to participate from Rachel was based on that work. So Animal Action installation, I did at cameras and screen and the kids could see themselves projected after they dressed up in these these kids. Where was I going with this anyway, so

09:46 What was it like to be because you know, you will night when I never worked in the children's museum before it. So the first thing you learn is that

09:59 It's going to be very whatever you make houses to survive contact with kids you have to dissipate is going to be abused and used and abused in love, but that's going to happen. And so the museum was also very willing to work with me and say we'll take your idea and we'll make it bulletproof for you don't worry. And so that was an experience. I know that I enjoyed.

10:30 So you didn't build your plush. I did I did but I had help you no help from the Museum from the from the from the studio, but I'm also say making those statements based on observing other artists coming in working for the staff and seeing how their work had to change maybe a little bit too to survive being in the museum for children of the new children's museum was knew because we were incorporating Contemporary Art. So contemporary artists were being brought into the museum and all those wave of 1st 2nd generation artists were working with Museum probably were going to the same thing because they're used to having their work in a museum where everyone looks but no one touches.

11:26 And and that you know, and so what is that? That's that's your taking the user into the user experience into consideration as well as an artist. So you are you do have a client beyond the museum the children up the child is your client and you have to design this thing so that the child can use it and get something out of it and not totally destroy it. I mean things do get destroyed. Do you know but you want it to last as long as possible, but you you know, the having said that that was just the basics and then beyond that you got to make something compelling and then pain right? I think it's much harder to make something for our Museum then to come up with something, you know.

12:16 For a traditional Contemporary Art Museum because of the factor that has to engage in some way. So you have to be strong and all all you know noted artist or works of art have strong Concepts behind them. But that ability to engage in a physical way and in adorable way. I think just adds to the you know, the qualifications I guess, you know makes it little bit more challenging for you, but I got my students involved in the project and design make some designs of Korra costumes and masks and then we we did a we created.

13:01 I am a video told him to our screens with flash different animal masks that the students are designed and those designs were used in the costumes in the plushies and things that we had for the kids laid out. You know, I know I came to the museum in those years. I wasn't working here at that time, but I don't remember your insulation very well. So there are there was video. Yeah, there was a plush animals and costume and then there was the walls were covered with orange shag carpet and initially that was just there as a kind of a tactile. But then I realized that kids were out you can draw on it. So if you move your hands through that cereal you can start to trade figures so then that became part of it.

14:01 You know, we think the kids are going to respond in one way and then they do something completely unexpected and Beautiful List the design something and they think they can sort of explore the realm of possible ways that they can be using and then the children come in and they completely find a different use for it and it's there. There's a gap there right the gap between the artist experience Museum administration's experience in the child experience and the difference there is that is all about

14:40 A child's lack of experience in the world compared to an adult. So whenever they encounter an object.

14:48 They can't rely on.

14:50 A series of encounters without object prior your life. So that first encounter is a hot search for all the possibilities Godley Station the experience than used. Can you pick it up? Can you kick it now hit someone over the head with or without hurting them? Can you call inside of it? Can you stand on top of it? Get it tip over can it stack and also these are all the prep the round the range of possibilities that kids run through when they encounter a new exhibit in the museum. And this is just basically, you know things that the kids are doing the world all the time when your bedroom or wherever it is, they are in the sandbox wherever children have a sense of Freedom, you know, where there where there or their play is not constrained right? So when you were talking I pictured in my mind this sort of mini mad scientist, right? Because that's what they do with experimenting. They're testing their hypothesis of what it might be like a cat.

15:50 The stand me jumping on it crawling through it touching it clawing at it. It said and you're right there frames of reference says are so limited. They kind of have to do all those things to kind of figure things out kind of neat way to think about, you know, Kidz exploration and maybe answers why some kids do the darndest things. Why would they do that? Why would a kid kick something and break it? I just testing it out quickly by sitting in the museum for 15-20 minutes watching One exhibit will kick quickly give you a very good idea of a different ways that kids interact with the installations here even something as simple as this one right out here, which is there's a fan blowing up through a tube and the kids but very light squares of fabric in the bottom and they're blown up and

16:50 Petya, I said I was watching it for about 10 minutes and just cataloging all the different responses and the way that they are engaging with an S sitter rather rather simple, but it's it's engaging engagement. Yes. Did the experience of working at the Museum influence the work that you continue to do?

17:23 Does an artist yes or no? I mean, I think the

17:35 I didn't I didn't go on to do a lot of insulation work after I left the museum because I'm basically a painter and draw inside work basically 2D.

17:47 So in that sense, no, but in another sense, I do it did open up to me a world of thinking about art as experience and for while done it for a while and I kind of I did that is a kind of

18:09 I'm dare to myself just to see what would come out of that kind of experiment. It was quite a deer but I and I and I had the wherewithal to to meet the challenge for a few years and then I was satisfied and then moved on to some other things but they had the whole idea of experience and art is one. You know, that goes goes back. It's very strong and American philosophy and and thought was back to John Dewey.

18:40 And the Boston Children's Museum was founded on his principles and I talked to Megan about that before Allan kaprow who taught here in San Diego and whose ideas influenced the the mission of the museum created an art around experiences. And so it's a flowing river of ideas and thought in the history of in our field that you not continue to like to swim in that and at least the three flecked on and think about it.

19:15 That's really interesting.

19:17 So your thoughts on a children's museum, I mean, yeah, I mean everything connects to each other ideas and I do to you know for me I've been here now little over eight years and things have really changed and the way I see that's museum has really changed and the way we work with artists have changed our installation approaches have changed. Yeah, and the are the changes are the changes such that you can see where they're going or did they are these abrupt changes that kind of Catch You by surprise I see them as kind of waves. So we noticed something so so when I first came on board, we had the museum Wyeth Ematic exhibitions with your beautiful, but once I did one turn around in that format shutting the museum down for 5 weeks working on 14 individual projects with not enough staff to go around to each of those poor art.

20:17 And then being here, you know really long days day after day that that was you know, that was like the Tipping Point of that wave telling me maybe there's a better way, you know to still have really creative people help build things that kids would enjoy and families would enjoy and learn from and play with so that was in some ways. It's an it was an abrupt but for me it wasn't it was like oh, yeah, of course this this is good, but not great. So let's change that and then

20:55 When you know with Megan and Lonnie and then the rest of the team and not thinking about the way we commissioned artist instead of just received receiving a proposal. That was the other thing enough. We would receive these proposals and then Lauren and I would try and make them work. So now it's more collaborative is that I was another wave. Well, why are we fighting this so much? Why are we trying to make something that's on paper and looks great, but may not materialize in a way that we needed to you know for the floor. So we began a conversation. We began inviting artists to come visit us has been a few days and then we watch the artist and truck with kids and some artists with just turn to me and say, you know, I'm so glad I came cuz I can't work with you.

21:38 You know, they just really just too much like it wasn't there that wasn't there thing. You know, I'm working in the studio and having a show and a traditional Contemporary Art Museum is very different from you know working with us cuz you get all of us, you know, when the project is being developed. So someone like you is very flexible and adaptable.

22:07 Sure.

22:09 You look very perceptive to the way that children are interacting with the art here.

22:19 That experience for you as a child. You know, what were your interactions like with clipart?

22:28 Go ahead and drop it. When you question, how did I end up and then maybe you stop for a few years and then maybe once you're in school have classes you pick it up again, but when I was 14 or 15, so there was a very popular song called Vincent by Don McLean and this is the first time I heard it. I know it's the folk song is a sad song about a painter and artist and

23:07 There were just enough clues about the prince person's life to make me curious but I did that time. I didn't know about about van Gogh reputation. So it just so happened that my mom had bought a series of books called The time-life Book of the great artists. I think it was the title of the series and you can there was a series of books on different artists and one was the life of Van Gogh so brilliant great. Okay. So here's my question is answered. Here's a book on her shelf about this artist. So that's how we got me interested in an Arden and painting. So I guess you could really see I came into visual art through music.

23:52 When will I think that as long as they had in 1972 or 73 about 14-15 looking at you know, you are that are that age are looking for models Role Models through the through through the song through music. I became interested in art and I I was playing guitar at that time, but I made a decision that I would go turn to visual art and not music and in recent years. I've been incorporating music again.

24:37 So, you know, I think about stories a lot because depending on what details I focus on for the way I weave my narrative together, you know, I could really change my story about the Arts but like you like I grew up trying, you know, and I remember I have very early childhood memories and I don't know if it's because I have a disabled brother and so my Early Childhood was punctuated by these these events that were probably not what most people experience going to the hospital a lot, you know, sort of explosive moments with my brother and I always Drew I remember being in the hospital finding marbles on the floor and playing with them. So, you know, I'm really interested in textures and colors and filling my time because I seem to have lots of time where I was waiting and I'm waiting for somebody at my brother's appointments and things I remember so at

25:37 This time I was still in Japan. I was born in Japan. I'm watching a TV show where they showed how to draw a lighthouse with a banister that went around and it looks like it was three day and I just funny things like that. So I learned how to you know, I don't know draw with perspective in mind and then growing up and moving to the United States actually has a little bit of England in there, too. I always just made things lots of materials experimenting with glue and paint and fabric and

26:16 And especially during Junior High and high school. I really got involved in the Arts and I thought well, maybe this might be a career for me, but I was too scared to go to art school. I ended up going to a for your large University. I took a lot of art classes lot of to do classes and I find that working with my hands getting involved with materials is it is a release for me. That's why I kind of carry that to my work here and make sure that the team here has enough supplies and materials so that the kinds of activities they want to have you know for a visitor's, you know can have that kind of having those experiences. I don't know if I haven't made any grade are but I was always proud of what I made and then in my career I've I've I've just worked at museums for like 26 27 years now and kind of has a joke. I'm trying to get back in a Hands-On, but I think I'm

27:16 Okay, not necessarily making art. I'm I think what what I like about the art making process at least for me is that I get to express myself and that I'm problem-solving. I find that really exciting and so in my work I'm expressing myself through the kinds of programs and the people that I get to nurture and support on the direction, you know, how big do forged the Russians and of the museum from me? That's it's early but but there is a connection it's like okay, I believe this is important for people and kids. So let's try this direction is like the waves when we made changes I was always trying to think of what's what's best not just for me but for the museum in the people that work here and so the problem solving in a drawing a pictures actual problem solving the world that you have something in your mind and you want to put it down on paper or you want to paint it or you want to model in 3D or whatever. You know, what material is going to be best.

28:16 How are you in a hurry? So I do that to administrative work baby? That's kind of a sad answer. But but I but I still feel really connected to the art and it's mostly to artists like you Perry, you know, so well, that's that's very nice thing to say.

28:34 You're so growing up in Japan. How long were you in Japan? When did you come to the United States? And what kind of adjustments did you find yourself making with you? I was amazing. I was very young when I came but I still remember it. I was about 4 and I should have been going to pre-kindergarten but there's no such thing. I'm so I went to kindergarten with an older Japanese neighbor and I remember my first day of school. I insisted to my mother that I would wear my Japanese school uniform cuz for some reason Japan Schools public school start earlier. I wore this uniform which I never wear again after day one and my mother says she gave me two words to take to school with me. I didn't speak English. She taught me water and toilet. I don't remember this but water because you have to have water you might be hungry, but you're not going to kill over after one day of not eating it are missing your lunch but water you.

29:34 Tap water and then she wanted to make sure I could go to the bathroom. So toilet and I remember walking into that kindergarten class and this is in Tuckahoe New York, cuz that's where my family moved to New York and the colors of the kids faces. I still remember it was weird dancing before my eyes. So brown hair blue eyes green eyes blonde hair red hair black hair something that I did see in Japan cuz everybody pretty much has dark hair and dark eyes and I never I don't remember struggling with a language. I don't remember having problems making friends, but I remember that it was quite different and one of them happened to be the way people looked and I remembered as color

30:21 So, yeah, so that was my experience many many years ago many decades ago.

30:27 And I've moved quite a bit in my life. So we went from Tuckahoe and then we stayed kind of in the same area, but we moved my parents bought a house a small house. And so I went to different schools in the in the town and there was a little bit of England which is kind of funny because I went to a school in London. I still look Japanese, but I had an American accent. So all the kids when I was in fourth grade living in London called me Yankee and that was really like I'm settling so I'm Italy picked up a British accent so I can just blend and I think I'm a pretty good chameleon. And then so that was a year-and-a-half in in the UK. I came back and then the kids here.

31:13 You know, we're baffled by my British accent. So it's been an interesting and I think all those experiences of change and adjustment really helped shape me this this last summer our family my my family now my husband in our son. We went to England and I took them to where I used to live and we walk to the school that I used to walk to everyday and it was amazing how far it was, you know, cuz today you would not walk 2 miles to school alone in fourth grade and then you know, we just did it everyday.

31:59 Well, I think that's an amazing story and it probably was good training for you to work in an environment where you have a lot of strong personalities a lot of ideas.

32:19 PS I loveyou passionate people absolutely artist which is an interesting topic because I think

32:33 But sometimes some of the most evilest people I know are artists and some of the most easy egotistical people. I know are artists and there's some lot. No. That's dualism or what but I think that you know, you you definitely you have to expect expect out in the community of artists in terms of interactions in Social relations in collaboration. Although I just cannot imagine how as an artist working in their Studio, you can allow your ego to get the upper hand because you're just bound to start making all kinds of really bad artistic anesthetic decisions if you're coming from that place in your in your head, but you know, if if you're out in the world to finding those ideas and I can say yes by you need to have a fierce thought your personality.

33:27 It is interesting how different artists approach their work and what that word means to them and what they want that work how they want that we're to impact, you know Their audience, you know, some people are really not comfortable with kids crawling all over their work and thinking about the end user. Yeah. I guess it's the whole range the whole rainbow of personalities. You say you've been through 12. Okay. Yeah, you remember 2011. So one of the questions we had kind of written down or you had written down to me was what does the museum?

34:16 What is the role of the museum in decision society? And I thought that since we're getting close to the interview. I thought maybe that might be a good question to end up with and since since we've just kind of talked about change in from your perspective because you're dealing with staff that you're also in. You're also dealing with the public at large. How would you how do you see museums roll on society? And how's it changed a question? So so I'm a social scientist. I know that sounds like a funny thing, but that that is like what I think about why I do what I do. It's because I'm interested in culture and the impact on society and vice-versa like what do we mean to society? And I think Children's Museums have become very popular.

35:05 Because of the way our societies are structured today, you know, we're no longer like I would never send my child out in 4th grade to walk 2 miles to some destination and then come back several hours later. You know what I think most people wouldn't do that until Children's Museums have become this Haven for families to come to where kids can explore freely inside the building you're kind of safe. But but but there's no you no fear of the outside world kind of doing anything harmful to the child. I think Matt parenting has become

35:48 Something completely different from when I was growing up. So the word parenting apparently came about in the 70s people didn't really talk about parenting like, you know, there were kids and their parents of course and you raised your children and you know, you want them to have a good life. But but the way in which we microscopically look at kids and what they're doing every day and try to fill their lives with, you know, all these experiences so that they become this future. I don't know successful person is is

36:19 Almost crazy to me. Like I I myself and my parent and I'm trying really hard to did not fall into that Trend. I'm trying to give my son a lot of freedom. I was given a lot of free to my parents never told me what to do. Like, I never tell me what to study. I'm not even sure they knew what I studied in college or graduate school. Like I couldn't, you know fall apart my brother but adds a Children's Museums are needed to as a place where families can go let their kids explore and be safe. I think it's also needed because we need to let kids take risks because there's we talked about the helicopter parent you might have heard of the bulldozer parent know who just plows away any obstacle, you know, that might that the child might come across so that the

37:19 Go to smooth and clear the child. When is a child ever going to learn that the world is actually not that safe and the child needs to have his or her wherewithal and develop resilience and confidence to force through challenges, you know.

37:35 We live in a really difficult world and if we keep directing our kids and providing everything, they're never going to learn and then the world so freaking ends up with Arie pretty messed up. So some sense. This is a safe place. But I also think of it as an opportunity for us to let kids explore and take risks and learn from failure, you know in a setting that's fairly safe. The one I remember the most was invest in failure and it's you do and it's this is the perfect place to do it.

38:24 No big deal, you know and then also it's good for the child to realize. Okay. Well that didn't turn out. Okay, they are that didn't turn out the way you wanted. That's okay. Try again. Keep trying I didn't get nothing to is we we push our kids to be this Future model citizens model. Don't let kids be kids and enjoy themselves now, you know, they're not lesser adults. They're just kids.

38:59 Yes it I think that's a good place to end. It it does bring in my it to mind image from medieval tapestry of children Representatives like miniature adults. Almost there is that Charlie didn't exist as we understand it and what we think of his childhood is a constructed idea and that's constructed by many forces and influences and society and at the Museum is a kind of a place where you could say, I hate stop. Let's re-examine this idea and let's see if we can play the practice of Morse an idea of what it is to be a child. Thank you.

39:41 Thank you. Good ending. Yeah. Thank you for a Time fairy.