Museums have programs to make art fun rather than a force-fed experience

TAKING THE KIDS

January 22, 1995|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The artists at the Art Institute of Chicago were concentrating on the project at hand -- making miniature rooms, shaping their creations carefully out of bits of paper, fabric and pictures cut from glossy art catalogs, with gentle suggestions from the instructors leading the workshop.

Inspiration flowed from table to table. Grandmothers got ideas from preschoolers, parents took the lead from grade-school kids. This workshop was designed for serious artists who happened to range from preschool to post-retirement age -- for families. My budding artists were too involved in their projects to even argue, for a few minutes anyway.

"This is as much fun for me as for the kids," said Linda Dawe, a speech pathologist from suburban Chicago who was busy creating her own miniature room alongside her mother and 7- and 5-year-old daughters.

"When we say we're coming downtown, the girls want to come here," said Ms. Dawe. "Definitely, they think the art museum is a fun place."

That's precisely the point. Major art museums around the country -- from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and Washington's National Gallery of Art to smaller regional art centers like Santa Fe's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture -- are working hard to communicate to families: We've got plenty for you. Just give us a try.

"Children grow up, and if you don't get them interested in museums as children, you won't get them as adults," explains Jean Sousa, the Art Institute's associate director. There even are monthly workshops for grandparents and grandchildren to do together. Call (312) 443-3680 for a program calendar.

"Families offer the best potential at diversifying our audience," adds Diane Brigham, of the Getty Museum's education department ([310] 458-2003). She notes that the Getty's family programs are all offered in Spanish as well as English and include weekend storytelling about the Greek Myths.

While museums are opening their doors to families, parents are actively searching for ways to enrich their children's educations -- and finding new activities to share. "I see the museum on a totally different level now, and it's more fun," said Mary Beth Dermody, who also lives in the Chicago suburbs and was busy at the Art Institute workshop with her daughter. "We come all the time now."

The trick, museum educators say, is to make the experience fun rather than a forced dose of culture.

Toward that goal, the Met even has a children's advisory board charged with reviewing the guides and games it produces for kids. "We make sure they're not boring for kids," explains board member Jennifer Muniz, who is 13 and lives in Lynbrook, N.Y. "I like museums because I like seeing all of the things from a long time ago," she explains.

But don't try to "see it all" or spend too many hours at once, urges Evan Levine, who oversees youth publications for the Metropolitan Museum. Her tip: Plan the visit ahead of time. Which galleries will you see? Pick a theme like faces or nature. Can you imagine stepping inside a painting?

Museums have plenty to choose from to engage the kids' interest -- art classes, performances and family guides to exhibitions and galleries. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, for example, enables youngsters to explore Native ++ American culture by trying their hand at different crafts like pottery or weaving. Call the museum at (505) 827-6344 to see what activities are being offered.

There even are videos and games to do at home, along with a growing library of books for children about art and artists.

The Getty has a wonderful "Make Your Own Museum" kit that comes complete with cardboard rooms and sticker reproductions of artworks, so they can mount their own exhibits. The African masks were a big hit with my young curators. The kit retails for $29.95. Call Getty Trust Publications at (800) 223-3431 to order.

Here's another tip from museum educators: Stop at the museum shop on your way into the museum and buy a couple of postcards of famous works of art. Turn the visit into a bona fide treasure hunt. Some museums have institutionalized that practice. Borrow a Gallery Game Box at the Getty; pick up a Museum Hunt sheet at the Met.

"Adults take them just for themselves," said Nancy Brigham of the Getty.

"Bring a sketchbook if the museum permits," suggests Lori Berenberg, associate director for outreach at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her museum lends them, in fact. Call for a schedule of drop-in family workshops and other classes for children at (617) 267-9300.

Even disinterested young museum-goers -- like my 11-year-old son Matt -- might be surprised by what they find at an art museum these days.

Matt and his sister Reggie, in fact, didn't have time for all they wanted to do on our visit. They watched a professional miniaturist crafting tiny pieces of furniture before they made their own creations.

Then we toured the Thorne Miniature Rooms to see the famous collection of 68 meticulously crafted, dollhouse-sized rooms.

Down the hall in the cozy library, families were flipping through children's art books and putting together puzzles of great paintings. Next door, we stopped in to hear a storyteller weave magic with his banjo.

"It was OK." Matt admitted as we left.

And some days, that's as good as you'll get.

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