Making Art Kid-friendly

Family: Art museums are using hands-on programs to appeal to families with young children.

February 13, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Pre-teen boys are no big challenge when you're Felicity Green and you know how to give them the "grisly" tour.

That means looking at swords or miniature statues of death or suits of armor or, as she recently showed a 10-year-old, an authentic Egyptian mummy. "Is that a real mummy? How did you catch him?" Green recalls the excited visitor (and obvious horror film buff) asking her.

Green, coordinator of children's and family programs at the Walters Art Gallery, is good at knowing how to get youngsters excited by art. She sees no reason children as young as 3 can't have fun in an art museum.

Two decades ago, that would have made her a heretic in a world where "family friendly" meant an art museum cut admission prices for students and helped arrange junior high school field trips.

But these days you might find Green or members of her staff sitting on the Walters' marble floor with pre-schoolers modeling clay or pasting yarn on construction paper. Or you might find her in her office creating "ArtPacks" for visiting families. The packs are colorful, glossy manuals that guide children through art collections with stories, activities and pictures.

"You always start children with a question: What do you see? What is that?" Green says. "If they're helping you find your way around, it's less intimidating. And the more they get comfortable, the more they'll want to come back."

In recent years, art museums across America have greatly expanded their efforts to reach out to families with children.

They've added art studios, self-guided tours, weekend classes, movie festivals, story readings and more to appeal to their youngest clientele. "It's been a little late in coming, to be honest," says Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums in Washington, DC.

Museum officials say they've been motivated by a desire to both draw more visitors andfulfill their role as art educators at a time when public schools across the country are under pressure to spend less on art classes.

According to the National Art Education Association, more than 40 percent of elementary schools have no art teachers. "There were always educators in the corner of art museums but it was usually the horrible walk and gawk tour," says Marilyn Goodman of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. "You can't speak....You can't touch."

While history and science museums have long included child-oriented exhibits with hands-on demonstrations, art museums have been slow to adapt, in part because of their philosophical roots.

Adhering to the European tradition, art museums were veritable shrines, holders of the "state's great collection," says Able. Even in the U.S., art curators are still reluctant to interpret art -- even on an adult level -- preferring to let the public have an unfiltered encounter with museum exhibits.

Not to mention the very practical problem of youngsters touching 300-year-old original oil paintings. "Unlike science museums, you can't climb all over us," says Peggy Burchenal of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

But the philosophy has changed substantially in the past decade. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, for instance, has 47 different children's programs scheduled for the first half of this year. "The challenge is, how can we make it fun and interactive for kids but not offend other museum goers?" says Anne Henderson, the National Gallery's head of family and youth programs.

Goodman, who serves as the Guggenheim's director of education, says the effort to reach children works to the museums' benefit, too.

Parents want to take their children with them on cultural trips or they won't go at all. And art museums must compete for these patrons with a lot of other types of family-oriented entertainment, she says.

Plus, Goodman notes, a lot of the private and public institutions that fund art galleries are now making grants conditional on museums having education programs. "People are dying to have a good time with their children," she says. "You can't go see `Fantasia' 10 times. You want to be able to share what you love with your children."

At the Walters, weekend art programs for children and parents have developed a loyal following. They may involve reading a story -- one about autumn perhaps -- and finding works of art that match the theme. Finally, the children put together a matching art project -- like a collage of leaves from the forest floor. "We've been going since before I can remember," says Greta Stetson, 11, a fifth-grader from Randallstown. "I've learned to look at art and find special things."

Joan Stephens, a retired marketing executive from Stevenson, has taken 10 of her 12 grandchildren to Walters art programs over the past 13 years including the twin 4-year-olds she takes now. "Art and theater are the first things they drop from school programs," she says. "To me, the earlier a child is introduced to the art world, the better. The children really look forward to it and it's a wonderful way to spend time with them."

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