Art: At the BMA, a monthly celebration of creativity aims to draw in the young with a long-range goal of expanding museum membership.

January 06, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

At Freestyle, the Baltimore Museum of Art's monthly First Thursday celebration, JoAnn Partee and son Travis Harper don't just meander among the masterpieces; they make their own.

At a recent Freestyle, Travis, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Pimlico Elementary School, made sketches of live models dressed as subjects worthy of Renoir and contemporaries. Later, at a lively poetry jam, his mother, a U.S. District Court deputy clerk, read her work "Tranquility," inspired by the painting "Evening Glow," by Alma Thomas.

"It's good for him," Partee says of her son's participation in Freestyle, a free event held during extended evening hours for the past four years. "He loves art, it's a great cultural experience, and a chance to unwind after school and work and get to observe so many different things."

Partee says that as she and Travis follow their muse at Freestyle, "He gives me ideas, and I give him ideas."

Music to Doreen Bolger's ears. The mother and son's experience is precisely what the BMA director wants to encourage through Freestyle and other programs: family participation, activities that appeal to young and old, ways of learning that will nurture a lifelong love of art and spur repeat visits to the museum, free or not.

Bolger bases her belief on intuition, experience and common sense: The "memorable quality of the experience" is enhanced, "especially when it's done with people you love the most."

When Freestyle was launched in October 1995, it was designed to appeal to all ages, but the emphasis appeared to be on adults and singles, as evidenced by a newspaper ad featuring festive young adults conversing at the BMA. It was hoped their ensuing enthusiasm would boost museum membership and attendance.

Institutions across the country introduced similar events with the same goals in mind. In Washington, the Phillips Collection started Artful Evenings, a mix of art appreciation, entertainment and socializing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art also initiated extended evening hours packed with lectures, music and revelry.

Growing membership was crucial for counteracting the decline in federal and local arts funding, Arnold Lehman, then the BMA's director, said when Freestyle began. "Everything grows out of membership." People "who have relationships with the museum" begin to take part in annual giving programs and may progress to become important donors, volunteers and even trustees, he said.

Freestyle remains popular; average attendance is a healthy 1,450. But the evening event did not measurably increase BMA membership or attendance, as Lehman had anticipated. Bolger, well aware of the arts funding crisis, takes the long view in using Freestyle and other programs to build a stronger base. Down the road, many of the children who enjoyed Freestyle with their families will become loyal and generous museum-goers. It's not a "lickety-split quick fix," she says.

Before Bolger arrived at the BMA in 1998, Freestyle's mission had already evolved. Museum staff realized that multiple families as well as singles seized upon Freestyle as an opportunity to spend time together and participate in cultural activities. Education and community department staff learned to prepare for the arrival of hundreds of children on Freestyle evenings. But the concept of art appreciation as a skill best learned through family experience was not yet fully realized.

Today, Freestyle, with its imaginative offerings and urbane atmosphere, is still a great destination for singles and adults, Bolger says. It is also a vehicle for "changing the perception of the museum" among the public from an intimidating fortress into a place that is "more accessible and more fun" for families. (To broadcast that philosophy, the BMA in the spring will roll out an ad featuring young children enjoying Freestyle, to replace the singles-oriented ad.)

The governing point of Freestyle, funded through the BMA's operating budget and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, is not to target potential members, but to allow visitors, both individuals and families, to interact more freely with art, Bolger says. "The more direct experience people have with creativity, the more likely they are to understand art we exhibit."

Bolger and her staff are addressing accessibility through other community links as well. Helen Molesworth, the BMA's new curator of contemporary art, was hired in part because of her ability to make difficult art available to everyone, not just aficionados, the director notes.

Bolger also hopes to hire a director of visitor services to serve as "an advocate for the audience," as well as oversee audience research. Allison Perkins, the BMA's new deputy director of education and interpretation, will lead her department's continuing efforts to make Freestyle a fun, interactive event for everybody.

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