Volume 18 • Issue 49 | April 21 - 27, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

From left, Ahn Steininger, Marion Jones, and Marie-France Greer, founders of miniMasters. The combination arts and exercise center for kids — and spa and café for parents — started its first term April 10, on Reade Street.

New art school for tykes pampers parents, too

By alex schmidt

In the basement of the new miniMasters learning center in Tribeca, a woman in a white t-shirt and yellow rubber gloves cleans an already glimmering children’s art area. The white of the room is broken up by a few dabs of primary color in diminutive chairs that sit empty, for the moment, awaiting their first tiny sitters.

Anh Steininger – pregnant and well dressed on the second day of her business’s life – leads the way past the cleaning woman into a small, dark room accessed from inside the art room. It looks like a movie theater for munchkins, with a huge flat screen on the wall and low comfy pillows around the perimeter. “This is the chill out room,” she tells me. “In case anyone is having a hard time during the day.”

Upstairs, sitting in the modern plastic grown-up chairs of the miniMasters café, Steininger sips on a beige, seedy fruit shake. She explains, “Before I was running up and down the city, taking my kids to their different classes. There was nothing for me to do while I waited and I said, ‘There has to be a better way to do this’.”

So Steininger, along with two other mothers, Mavie-France Greer and Marion Jones, decided to combine children’s exercise classes, children’s art classes, children’s music classes, and “the parent thing” (café, spa and pilates) into the just-opened miniMasters complex – a gleaming, flawlessly branded, architecturally striking learning center on Reade Street.

Steininger, her husband and two children are just one of many families who have migrated to Tribeca in a demographic shift that has made the historically industrial downtown neighborhood into a network of strollers, nannies and pregnant mothers. In her market research, Steininger found that the number of toddlers and doting parents has increased by almost 50 percent in the past three years, creating a perfect market for miniMasters.

Yet while the change represents a window of opportunity for the miniMasters entrepreneurial venture, it also means a fresh start for another nearby arts organization that suffered from a mass exodus of residents after 9/11. Just three blocks away from miniMasters is the not-for-profit Church Street School for Music and Art, where Steininger’s own children took lessons, and which she said they liked. The Tribeca landmark, which opened in 1981, lost 75 percent of its student body in 2001. It has since filled its classes to capacity, but on some levels, the two schools will now be competing for students.

Susan Duncan, Assistant Director of Church Street, says that they “made the decision to stay here and be an oasis” after the terrorist attacks. During an art class for a dozen two and three year-olds, Duncan and another teacher work together, dropping gobs of paint on the papers in front of the children as Duncan explains the process-based philosophy of Church Street School. The kids are never given directions, but rather are permitted to explore their own creativity with the materials they are given. “Sometimes it’s nice to see how little you can give them and see what happens,” the teacher says.

Each child reacts differently as yellows and reds are placed in front of them. One little boy attempts to draw a car. Another makes patterns that look like delicate hieroglyphics, and one girl simply seems fascinated by the consistency of the paint. When pipe cleaners are handed out, another little girl asks, “What should I do with it?” She thinks for a moment, then decides to bend the pipe cleaner into a snake-like form, using it to move the paint around on the paper.

After the class empties out, Duncan’s hands are covered in paint. She tidies up the low-ceilinged room, sweeping and stacking the tiny, wooden paint-splattered stools that the children use as chairs. Duncan used to work in corporate advertising, but after she had her son, she explains, “it just made sense” to work in non-profit children’s arts education. “I can be in a terrible mood and just walk through the door and hear their voices and see their faces, and it just changes my perspective,” she says of the children she works with at Church Street. Upstairs, in one long hall, the children’s art covers every inch of available wall space. “We hang the art so kids can see that we honor their work,” Duncan says.

For her part, Steininger doesn’t see miniMasters as competing with Church Street School. For starters, she offers both Suzuki and Dalcroze method-based music classes. Church Street, on the other hand, favors Dalcroze but may incorporate other teaching styles to tailor its classes to each individual student. (Suzuki attempts to mimic the process of natural language acquisition while Dalcroze emphasizes learning music through physical movement.) There’s also the obvious difference in class offerings: only at miniMasters can a child squeeze in gym time after drawing — all while mom gets her nails done.

Church Street School’s pure focus on the arts has its advantages, too, considering it has helped place students in prestigious institutions like Yale, the Eastman School of Music and Julliard, where they have pursued degrees in the arts. And miniMasters is a private, for-profit institution while Church Street is a not for profit organization supported by and very much a part of the local community.

Yet there are similarities between the schools as well. Both aim to provide an experience that people can grow with from babyhood through to adulthood and – in the case of Church Street – old age. Both schools’ art and music classes will go no higher than 12 students. Both draw their students from the local demographics of the Tribeca community.

On a Friday a couple of weeks after miniMasters first opened on April 3, an art class for 2 year-olds was in session. There were four children in attendance with their caretakers. All had been given large ovals that represented Easter eggs, strips of cut grass, and the table was laid out with brushes and plastic cups full of different watercolors. The children painted away, happy with the different colors and paper until one little boy began yelling, “miniMuscles! miniMuscles! miniMuscles!” His mother took him out into the child’s gym area where the miniMuscles class is conducted.

The little boy crawled through tunnels, tumbled over huge balls and jumped on miniature trampolines, smiling and squealing with delight. “I can’t believe this is in my neighborhood. It’s great, so fresh and clean. It’s so attractive for a Mom. When the spa opens the manicures and pedicures are going to be great,” said his mother, Maria. “I don’t know how much money went into this place, but they spared nothing,” she pointed to the walls of the gym. “This kind of padding? I mean, they really care.”

Of miniMasters, Duncan says, “It remains to be seen exactly what the impact of them being down here will be. There are other places too, and there will be people who go there who don’t go here, and there will be people who go here that don’t go there.” Regardless of any competitive conflicts, though, Duncan says that, “We encourage anybody who’s going to bring quality, committed art downtown. It would be great for Tribeca to be an arts center again.”


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