About Merilee Mostov

Merilee Mostov is the Chief Engagement Officer for CMA

Artists Invoke Wonder at CMA


Eight Columbus artists contributed their talents, skills, and imagination to help us inspire awe and promote a spirit of play in the new Wonder Room.

We are proud and delighted that these artists took a risk along with us, that they shared our passion for the peculiar and the uncanny; that they embraced our vision for this quirky gallery that merges surprise and mystery, play and great art.

It feels really good to be part of this community of artists who are working on this special project. To be valued by the Museum as an artist, is great!” - Susie Underwood, Columbus artist, pictured above                                                     

Early in the planning my colleague and collaborator Jeff Sims and I made a decision to partner with local artists for this project. Why? Because we value the way artists think, imagine possibilities, and take risks.  And we value the depth of creative talent right here in Columbus. We believed that with local artists we could orchestrate just the right mix of eccentricity, wonder, and play.

These talented artists did not disappoint. Their diverse creations are critical to the unique Wonder Room experience. When you visit the space, you will discover:

  • a life-size, mixed-media Tree of Wonder by Zepher Potrafka
  • five meticulous, miniature installations created by Susie Underwood,Caitlin Lynch, and Sharon Dorsey
  • many phantasmagoric costumes designed and handmade by Heidi Kambitsch of Openheartcreatures
  • a captivating graffiti wall painted by Giovanni Santiago
  • an inventive Storytelling Adventure Game designed and hand-painted by Brian R. Williams
  • the most wondrous Spalted Maple Looking Glass and Marked By installations by Dorothy Gill Barnes
Artist by Brian R. Williams

Storytelling Adventure Game by Artist Brian R. Williams

Some of these creations are designed to be touched, manipulated, and played with.  Others – more fragile works of art – are placed strategically in places where visitors will discover them, unexpectedly. Their magic is experienced by peeking and looking and marveling.

Miniature Installation by Artist Dorothy Gill Barnes

Artist Dorothy Gill Barnes

Since the Wonder Room re-opened in December, I have been observing, conversing, and playing with many visitors in the space. I witnessed two adult woman engrossed for more than an hour with the Storytelling Adventure Game.  I gather countless visitor drawings of the Tree of Wonder.  And most recently, I watched as a very young boy bounced from one miniature installation to another with glee –pointing, remarking, and then very purposefully, photographing them.

Wonder Room installation at Columbus Museum of Art

Young boy photographs installation by Susie Underwood

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the newly designed Wonder Room, I encourage you to make time to check it out. Discover for yourself the awe-inspiring creativity hatched right here in Columbus.

The New Wonder Room: Icing on the Cake


“Hi, what are you doing?” I whispered as I crouched, on hands and knees, under the treehouse.

“We’re imagining there’s a troll living up there in the treehouse,” Marina shared.  “We’re the elves.”

“Elves are nice,” added Pilar.

I smiled and joined in the creative play with Lorena and her two daughters Marina and Pilar.  Together we wondered about the ambiguous glass sculpture.  Is it a girl or boy?  Is it human or elfin?  We pretended to be mermaids climbing rocks; we stacked up piles of bamboo stones. And then, Lorena and the girls crawled away to spy on the “mean troll” living in the tree house.

The Wonder Room is back in business.

After five hectic weeks of demolition and transformation, the Wonder Room is open again. Chock-full of birds and bats, trees and mysterious creatures, this experimental gallery now flaunts a woodland theme with all new hands-on activities and an eclectic selection of art.  Curious visitors of all ages braved cold and ice to come out and play with us last month during the Wonder Room preview weeks.

Lorena and her two daughters played for hours.


Daniel, Susan, and Shirley also came to check it out.  When I met this trio, they were huddled around the tree stumps, contemplating their progress.  Their goal:  to build an arched branch — one that would span both tree stumps — using the large cardboard pieces.  Susan played the role of a human support beam while Daniel experimented with different pieces to make the structure sturdy.  Shirley offered advice from the sidelines.

As always, I relished chatting and collaborating with these and other CMA families.  As always, I observed and documented some of their conversations and actions.  As always, I looked for evidence of collaboration and creativity in action.

Situated in the very heart of the Center for Creativity, the Wonder Room is intentionally designed to foster and provoke creativity.  But creativity, we know, is like a gargantuan, multi-tiered cake; we don’t expect to take in the entire confection at one sitting.  Instead we pick away at the layers at different times in different ways.  The Wonder Room takes a big bite out of the tiers of curiosity, imagination, experimentation, and storytelling. 

To set the stage for these creative experiences, we made countless intentional design decisions to promote creative play – play inspired by unexpected discovery and exploration, play that allows for experimentation and mess-making, and play that is prompted by sharing stories, make-believe, and imaginings.

What I first noticed about Lorena and Daniel’s families is their intuitive and urgent drive to play – to invent, to explore, to experiment, to pretend.  From across the room I first watched as Lorena and her family crawled into the dark crevices under the treehouse, discovered the sleeping sculpture, and took off on their adventure.  From afar I watched Daniel, his mother and girlfriend, make bird nests, draw trees, and then, set out to build the marvelous arched tree.

For good reason, there are very few signs in the gallery currently.  I’ve learned that people don’t seem to notice signs in museums, so I spent the first few weeks watching and listening to determine what kind of signs visitors of all ages would need to encourage their creative play — to give them permission to play.

I admit that even I am surprised at how much imagining, experimenting, and storytelling has erupted spontaneously here already.  And for me, that is the icing on the cake.








People’s Choice Awards

People's Choice

I’ve been thinking lately about the music industry People’s Choice Awards.  In all honesty, I can’t say that I follow them. I can’t reliably name any recipient of recent awards, although I could probably guess a few names based on media banter.  But the possibility of a people’s choice award in an art museum intrigues me.  And even knowing that the very concepts of high art and people’s choice are somewhat incongruous, I set out this week to bring them together. A perfect opportunity presented for an impromptu people’s choice experiment at CMA.  And I took advantage.

The focus of my people’s choice experiment was the objects in the large glass wall adjacent to the Wonder Room. The Wonder Room is currently closed for a makeover and will re-open with much fanfare on December 14.  To align with the mysterious forest theme of this gallery, the objects in the glass wall will change, too.

Prior to the Thanksgiving weekend, we placed a selection of some of these objects on the floor of the glass case. Our designer included a sign indicating that this is an installation in process.

What a perfect chance to discover what our visitors like, what catches their eye, what piques their curiosity! I thought.

On Saturday, I approached several enthusiastic visitors for my experiment.  The delightful family pictured here was visiting from Columbus, Indiana.  “It’s just a three-hour drive so it makes a good day trip,” said father Sandeep.  Perfect, I beamed.  Any family who is willing to drive 3 hours to visit our museum deserves to be counted in my experiment.

Sandeep’s family favored a Lalique scarab vase, a Paul Manship bronze of Diana, and a sinuous Lino glass sculpture. Check.  Those 3 works will make the final cut. Mother Sangeeta and daughter Meghali were especially curious about the story behind the bronze sculpture.  Sangeeta wondered if I plan to share information and stories about the works.  Sandeep suggested creating an app with more information.  Duly noted.  The “people” want some context and stories about the objects.

What I discovered in my brief, impromptu experiment is not entirely surprising.  The jaw-dropping Lino sculpture is a definite people’s choice winner.  But so is the quirky bird sculpture that, as one visitor described it, looks like a cat who stumbled upon a guard dog.  I learned that visitors like the beauty and the beast; they’re captivated by what is stunning and they’re fascinated by the quirky and the peculiar.

We’ll be putting the final touches on the glass wall this week and next.  And, thanks to several obliging visitors, it will reflect some of the people’s choice.

The “F” Word

Fun at Columbus Museum of Art

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend at art museums.   We get all pinched-faced, sweaty-palmed, and somewhat defensive when we hear the “f” word.  I’m not talking about the four-letter word that rhymes with duck.  I’m talking about the 3- letter word that rhymes with run.

I’m talking about fun.

We don’t like it.  We’re uncomfortable with it.  When the very word is mentioned a chill sweeps through the air.  Eyes begin to bat involuntarily and dormant nervous twitches are inconsolable.

I admit that this repulsion to fun is entirely lost on me.  Perhaps I missed that initiation ritual.

I imagine that entombed in one of the matriarchal museums far from here hides a dusty code of ethics for art museums.  It most certainly outlines the sound reasons to banish all evidence of fun from our cavernous and echo-filled galleries.  I imagine that a group of early directors sporting powdered wigs did a pinky swear outlawing fun forever.

But from where I sit, this clandestine pinky swear could be the downfall of art museums in the 21st century.  Why?  Because fun is exactly the reason that many of our visitors, at least here at CMA,  come to our doors.

Visitors like Alexis and Thomas. This young couple spent several hours last Friday exploring CMA together.

When I first encountered them, I posed the same question I ask all visitors, “So, what brings you to the museum today.”  Alexis and Thomas looked at each other quizzically, then responded in unison, “Fun, just for fun.”

This twosome is not unusual.  Based on myriad conversations I have with visitors each week, they are not outliers or especially freakish, boorish or uneducated.  In fact, they are quite smart and sophisticated.

Both are juniors at OSU. Thomas studies marketing; Alexis is a nursing student and works part-time at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

But like so many of our visitors, they have limited free time each week, and this week they were looking for a place to spend some enjoyable time together.  They chose the art museum.  Shocking, isn’t it?  Let’s review the irony here.  Art museums have a veritable code against fun. We avoid it like the plague; we have a visceral reaction to it.  Yet, many visitors come here in search of its captivating embrace.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.  Because, unlike many other art museums, CMA has welcomed the “f” word.  In fact, FUN was adopted as one of our brand qualities years ago.

Of course, fun means something different to everyone.  So, being curious, I checked in with Alexis and Thomas several times during their visit.  I was curious about how they spent their time at CMA.  I was curious what fun looked like to this handsome and smart young couple.

When I asked Alexis what she liked best about her visit she said,

“I just like playing with things.  When it’s hands-on, I like it more.  It’s way more interesting.”  She told me that standing to look at painting after painting on the wall can get tedious.  She preferred the many hands-on activities around the museum. Already, I spotted the couple making designs with colored paper, collaborating on a puzzle, and building with LEGO bricks.  Alexis also pointed out the watercolor drawing she made earlier.

The art museum founding fathers would no doubt look at all of these activities disapprovingly.  If they were alive today, I would reassure them that at CMA fun is not a roadblock to thinking and noteworthy conversation. (For example, Thomas and I had a delightful chat about Maslow’s theory on people’s hierarchy of needs.) Fun doesn’t blind us from our aesthetic sensibilities or destroy our cognitive functions.  It isn’t toxic or poison.

Fun is a tool for the curious.
Fun can reinvigorate the obscure, the lackluster, the mundane.
Fun doesn’t corrode our values, but can add more value to our experience.

Fun is what lured Alexis and Thomas to our museum last Friday.  So, from where I sit, if we want to continue to attract bright, young people like them to our doors, we need to shatter that misguided pinky-swear promise and start designing for FUN.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.

Wishing for Wonder

the first wonder room at columbus museum of art

The first generation of the Wonder Room closed last Sunday.  On Monday we removed the Calder mobile and the giant Balkenhol Head.  We boxed up the dowel rods, dishes, and animal parts.  We tore down the Fort.  In a few weeks the space will re-open with an entirely new look – new art, new activities, new furnishings.

It’s hard to believe that the Wonder Room has been open for nearly 3 years.  It’s also hard not to be nostalgic as we pack up.

I have often said that the Wonder Room is a testament to the maxim “watch what you wish for.” Five years ago, we dared to wish for a different kind of gallery in our new Center for Creativity.   We wished for a space that provokes visitors of all ages to be curious, to imagine, to play.  We wished for a place where families with children could engage together. We wished for a gallery that was not business-as-usual – a slightly quirky and unpredictable space that breaks the rules about how an art museum should look.

Some people were skeptical.  Some said that we would not attract families.  Some could not imagine the promise of great art mixed with a quirky dark room, funky floors, and recycled kitchen utensils.

To be honest, we knew that we were taking a big risk.  We knew all along that this new experiment could fail.

But it didn’t.

When we opened the doors to the Wonder Room on January 1, 2011, we never anticipated its success and popularity. But since that day, the Wonder Room pulsed with activity.  Families lingered for hours.  Teenagers gathered.  Engineers attending a workshop spent their lunch hour building with wood dowels and rubber bands.  On more than one occasion, I witnessed a parent escorting a frenzied child screaming, “But I don’t want to leave the art museum!”

What I have learned along the way is that although we can’t ever assume or dictate what visitors do here, we can set the stage to foster certain types of experiences.  We can make intentional decisions to invite curiosity and exploration.  We can make design decisions that coax visitors of all ages to imagine and create. Although we did not design the Wonder Room specifically for young children, it was 2 year-old Mason, pictured here, who recently taught me the most about wonder and discovery.

Five years ago, we wished for a special gallery that promotes imagination and play. And here is what I have learned:   Watch what you wish for, because if you dream, plan, and take risks, it just may happen.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.

[Please note: The Wonder Room is closed for reimagining while we transform it into a magical forest with woodland creatures. It will be back January 2 (but CMA members can enjoy sneak-preview visits from December 14 until the public reopening). Join now and see it first at a special member preview on December 14.]

Family Ties

Families at Columbus Museum of Art

When families discover Columbus Museum of Art for the first time, they’re often surprised and delighted.

I met this endearing family during their very first visit to CMA this fall. “We didn’t know the art museum had so many things for families to do!” Grandma exclaimed.

I hear this sentiment often.  To be fair, I get it.  I admit that an art museum is not the first place that comes to mind for family fun.  But Columbus Museum of Art is not your typical art museum.

At CMA, we welcome families.  Yes, even families with children.  In recent years we have made several deliberate changes to provide a more family-friendly experience.  When parents and grandparents are looking for a great place to explore, play, and learn together, they can count on us.

We know that families come in all shapes and sizes with different interests, skills, and needs.  And we recognize there are many things we can do to make families feel more comfortable, valued, and engaged here.  So at CMA we have made thoughtful choices to provide:

  • open-ended, hands-on activities for all ages
  • comfortable places to sit, talk, and play together
  • simple signage and instructions
  • friendly, helpful staff
  • a  new Family Comfort Room, a quiet place to nurse, feed, or change diapers

We believe that, with careful planning and consideration, an art museum can be a perfect place for families to come together to share, imagine, and play.

When I met Grandma, Papa, Joseph and Judah (pictured here) in the Big Idea Gallery last month, they rattled off a list of their adventures – making an airplane with  white LEGOS at the imagine the possibilities space, creating forts and mixed-up animals in the Wonder Room.

Grandma just gathered the family to work on a large puzzle of a painting.  She challenged Judah, her youngest grandson, to find the red pieces.  With determination, Judah scanned the jumble of jigsaw shapes, plucked one out, searched the painting on the wall, and proudly handed it to his grandmother.  “Look Grandma. I found this red one.  It goes there.” He pointed to the exact spot in the painting that matched his piece. Together they made a place for it on the table.

In the meantime, Joseph cozied up to a table nearby pilled with colorful blocks and proceeded to build an intricate tower. Papa bounced back and forth between the two tables, helping out here, dishing out encouragement there.

Perhaps the best part of my job is the chance to meet families like this one, to share in their enthusiasm and glee and to witness their discovery of an art museum that champions families.

Please note: The Wonder Room will be closed for reimagining starting November 4. We’ll be transforming the Wonder Room into a magical forest with woodland creatures. Join now and see it first at a special member preview on December 14.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.


Day of Play

Day of Play

Last Saturday Raeanne brought her family to the museum to play.  CMA hummed that day with the 2nd Annual Global Day of Play Cardboard Challenge.  Raeanne (left), her family, and friends accepted the challenge with gusto.

If you aren’t already familiar with the Imagination Foundation and the inspiration for this yearly Cardboard Challenge, check out the compelling story here.

Armed with mountains of cardboard, masking tape, and utility knives, CMA visitors were challenged this year to “design for the future.”  I stumbled upon Raeanne and her family knee deep in cardboard.  Sophia (arm raised), Raeanne’s 8 year-old daughter, was the mastermind behind the construction project – a  5-foot futuristic convertible car.  But, the whole family took part in the making, including Nana who drove in from Newark to join in the weekend “cultural” activities.  While Sophia worked on the wheels, Nana and Yohannan (back) worked on the chassis.

Fresh off the soccer fields, the family already had a busy morning.  Yet, they heard about the Cardboard Challenge from Sophia’s school, and made time to schedule creative play into their Saturday.  Their friends Rhonda, Alexa, and Alia came later to join in the fun.

It sounds silly, somehow, to have to make time to play.  Our harried, overprotected, overstimulated, 21st century lives, don’t often allow enough space and time for play and its muses — imagination, curiosity, and wonder. At the Columbus Museum of Art, we celebrate creativity.  And we believe that play — with all its variations and disguises, its labels, classifications, and complexities — is essential to creativity and innovation.

Play is notoriously difficult to define.  While it has a reputation for the frivolous, juvenile, and inconsequential, play can also be intense, purposeful and momentous.

Varied educational and scientific research of the last 60+ years confirms that play is critical to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of animals from polar bears to chimps to humans.  And some of the greatest artistic and scientific minds of the last century attribute their successes and achievements to play. (See Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein)

I was delighted to meet two smart moms, Raeanne and Rhonda (right), who value play for their families — who make time for the structure of sports and art lessons in the morning, but allow for something else – the time for everyone in the family to consider, construct, and prototype a car for the future.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.

Like the Coffee Shop


What brings you to the art museum?

Jordan, a communications major at OSU, comes here to do her homework.

I happened upon Jordan one recent weekday afternoon. Spread out on a table near the Palette Express Café, Jordan was working quietly while enjoying the view of Derby Court. Her sketchbooks bulged with giant shapes – cones and cylinders – as she tackled assignments for her beginning drawing class.

Jordan searched for the right place to work this day, “someplace other than a coffee shop.”   She settled on CMA – a perfect spot to think, relax, and draw.

We’re happy she came.

We like to know that our beautiful building and art-filled galleries are not merely visited, but used. That is why, in addition to great works of art, we’ve loaded our galleries with comfortable seating – tables, sofas, and chairs.  Like the local coffee shop, we have free WI-FI, dark roast, and a slightly exotic Jungle Love on most days.  Like the coffee shop we are a community space where you can gather to socialize with friends and co-workers.  Like the coffee shop we’re just the right spot to temporarily escape from chores, routine, and traffic. Like the coffee shop, we’ve got quieter times that are perfect for writing and reflection, as well as busy periods that are great for people-watching.

A trip to CMA doesn’t have to be a once-a-year pilgrimage.  Yes, we encourage you to take time to ponder some of the great works of art we have on view.  But we welcome you to realize other ways to use our spaces too.   Looking for an inspiring place to brainstorm with your co-workers? Think CMA.  In the mood to jumpstart your creativity, play a game, do a puzzle?  Check out CMA.  Need a place to unwind on your lunch break? Stop by CMA.

More and more I encounter people like Jordan who have discovered that CMA is a local treasure, not just because we have great art, but because we’re just the right place to spend an afternoon.  We’re kind of like your local coffee shop, but well, with a better view… and more.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.

Creativity Coach

Creativity Coach

In the Center for Creativity at the Columbus Museum of Art we believe that creativity is for everyone. By everyone, we mean people of all ages.  If only I had a dollar for every time an adult quipped, “me? I’m not creative.  But, (pointing to an adorable 7-year old nearby) my son, or granddaughter, or niece is very talented.”

Which makes me think that in addition to personal trainers, stylists, and doulas, many adults need a Creativity Coach.  A creativity coach would follow you around for one week to highlight and record the myriad ways that you already employ creativity in your life.  A creativity coach will motivate you to try new things – to take risks.  She will champion your imagination, curiosity, and sense of wonder.  She will provoke you to explore things that are absurd and ambiguous.

I got the idea for a creativity coach after meeting Michelle Persichetti last week at a reception for the finalists in the 3rd CMA Community Photo Hunt Challenge.  Michelle would be a terrific creativity coach.

Michelle’s story is similar to other adults I meet.  A busy mother and elementary teacher at Tremont School in Upper Arlington, she doesn’t consider herself to be particularly creative.   But she notices that something special is happening since she started snapping photos for the Community Photo Challenge.   “This challenge has made me more observant of the world and moments to capture. It has inspired me to have a new creative outlet.”

What I love about Michelle’s story is her attitude.  She may not consider herself creative and she may question what that word means, but she has not shut the door on it either.  She is not afraid to try something new, to experiment, to look at the world from a new point of view, to be curious.  Michelle’s story is an example of how quietly creativity can slip into our lives, and energize us. Her enthusiasm, her sense of wonder, her passion – this is how I know she would be a terrific creativity coach.

There are many exciting photos in this exhibition of all Instagram images, but Michelle’s submission for the prompt GOLDEN is particularly compelling. At the reception, I waited patiently to discover the person, and the story, behind this photo. On the surface, it’s such a simple image – a letter on simple ruled paper.  But it is the story behind the photograph that jostled my imagination.

I was thrilled to meet Michelle this night – to soak up her positive energy, to be inspired by her passion, to bear witness to adult creativity.  And I was honored that she shared even more details about the golden letter with me later that evening via e-mail,

“As I drove home I thought more about the photo, after my dad passed away suddenly, I took out a box of letters he had written me. Letters that I didn’t appreciate as much when he was alive. That line inspired me, and assured me again of his unconditional love, so I snapped a picture to always keep it in my pocket. It just happened to be on golden paper and be a golden line.”


As any good coach knows, getting started is the hardest part.  Trying something new is scary.  Congratulations to Michelle for taking the risk.

Want to join the next Photo Hunt starting in September? Here’s how…

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Or check back on our blog.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.