BENTONVILLE, Ark. — The first thing you encounter at a new contemporary art show at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is the “Mom Booth,” where a woman in an apron sits at a table.
Behind her, shelves are stocked with Band-Aids, puddings, animal crackers, soup cans, paper lunch bags and clean underwear. She’s not a docent or guide. She’s a real mom who gives advice, hugs and maybe a scolding. She might ask you to fold laundry or pick Legos off the floor.
And she may inspire thoughts of your own mom or kids. But how is a mom surrounded by Band-Aids and puddings art?
As a work designed to engage viewers, the Mom Booth, created by Andy Ducett and staffed by local volunteers, has earned its spot at “State of the Art,” the contemporary art show that opened Sept. 13 at Crystal Bridges. The show is a new direction for the museum, which opened in 2011 with a respectable collection of traditional works bought by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. That collection consists mostly of paintings by famous artists, from a George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart to Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter.”
In contrast, “State of the Art” showcases new, under-recognized art, including interactive art, mixed media and videos. The Mom Booth is an inviting way to start the show. Ducett said it counteracts the stereotype that contemporary art is cold. “I want to make the initial experience something that’s familiar but at the same time, takes a mom out of context,” he said. “Maybe visitors laugh and take a selfie, but as they move away, they ask, ‘What makes that art?’”
Ducett held volunteer training sessions for Mom Booth shifts. “They wanted to know how I wanted them to act as mothers, which was bizarre,” he said. He doesn’t want to dictate anything; he wants “a collaboration — a collage.”
But he encourages the moms to bring props — laundry, aprons, photos, knitting. Ducett’s mom, Marilyn, staffed the booth for the opening and for a previous one-night show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and she brought a tub of Vicks VapoRub.
“When we were sick with a cold, we were chased around the house with that,” Ducett said. “That smell takes you to a different place.”
Some visitors pose for selfies with the moms; some say they’ve lost their moms and get hugged; one couple asked for advice for newlyweds. One man asked Marilyn Ducett: “How do you heal a broken heart?”
“Get on the next bus,” she said. “There’s one coming every 15 minutes.”
Some viewers compare the shelves with their own cupboards: Yes, I have paper lunch bags; no, we don’t eat pudding. But Ducett doesn’t intend the items to be seen as essential to child-rearing. The Campbell’s soup cans, for example, are a nod to Andy Warhol’s “iconic image. That soup can in 2014 is the same as it was in the ’60s.”
Ducett was also inspired by “Peanuts” comic strip character Lucy, who sat in a booth with a sign offering “psychiatric help” for 5 cents.
While the Mom Booth appears to promote an old-fashioned image of loving but stern caregivers, some volunteers draw on expertise from their real lives as educated career women. When a visitor confided needing help for a disabled child, volunteer Tara Ray Wright, who is a speech therapist, whipped out her laptop and found services for the family.
Other visitors turn the tables, giving advice to the moms. “You’re responsible for you!” an elderly woman told Wright. An elderly man said: “Dads don’t know split beans from coffee beans.”
“It’s an awesome duty to be entrusted with the artist’s vision,” Wright said. “What he’s done is genius.”
But often, the volunteers just use motherly commonsense. When a child asked for pudding from the display, Wright said: “No. It will spoil your dinner.”