Museums Roll Out the Red Carpet for Children

As art institutions look to the future, family-friendly programs take on new importance

"Tell which teapot you like and why you like it."

Kathleen Lomatoski has a captive audience today, a group of youngsters gathered around a case of unique teapots.

Josiah likes the racy one because "it reminds me of a car."

Katherine likes "the shape-y one because it has lots of colors."

Veronica likes "the silver one because it's made of all different objects."

How would you pour with these, Ms. Lomatoski asks.

Hands shoot up in the air.

Welcome to the Children's Room, a free after-school program offered by the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston.

While a museum gallery might seem an unlikely place for 30 children to sit on the floor working colored pencils on paper, such a scene is symbolic of the message art institutions across the country are sending to families: Come on in and have fun.

From family days to after-school drop-ins, programs for children have become high priorities for art museums.

Whereas children's museums and science museums have always been easy sells (can you say "dinosaur"?), art museums have traditionally suffered from the "stuffy" stigma. "Be quiet, don't touch" is about as child-unfriendly as you can get.

Still, at a time when arts programs are struggling in public schools, museums find they can fill an educational need and at the same time cultivate a new audience.

Most museums have had education and community programs for decades. But the increased attention toward families makes marketing sense.

"Let's face it: Children are our future visitors, members, trustees," says Eileen Harakal, spokeswoman for the Art Institute of Chicago, which features the Kraft Education Center geared to help children learn and participate in the arts.

The museum's exhibit "Telling Images: Stories in Art" presents six masterworks in inviting settings for children. Computer games, puzzles, storytelling, and other activities add to the experience.

Family-friendly gestures show up in smaller ways, too: In the main galleries, the art institute has added step stools and special ledges so children can see artworks at eye level.

Attendance numbers fluctuate, but most museums report a rise in the number of little sneakers that have skittered across their marble floors just in the last five years - mainly because of family programs.

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York invites families in on Saturday mornings for activities before galleries open to the public. "Art Safari," a family guide in the works, will invite children to look for animals in art. "Tours for Tots" is designed for preschoolers.

"The beautiful thing about being in a museum with children is that they bring a fresh perspective to artwork," says Joyce Raimond, family programs coordinator for MOMA. "Children are honest in their responses about what they see and what art means to them. They're insightful."

At the Los Angeles County Art Museum, families are beckoned through tours, art classes, and family days.

This Sunday, for example, family day is titled "Spirit of America: From Sea to Shining Sea." Children between ages 5 and 12 will come with their families to hear music, go on a guided tour of the American Art Collection, listen to stories, and participate in hands-on art projects. Workshops will introduce them to traditional American arts and crafts such as making instruments and wrap dolls, and learning quilting and folk painting.

Generally speaking, museums' challenge to connect children to artwork is met through conversation and hands-on activities after mini-tours. (While small fingerprints on plexiglass may be common, docents report that once children understand why it's important not to touch, they're fine with it.) The focus usually relates to current shows, but it can also involve a theme that takes families on a "treasure hunt" through permanent collections, such as seeing how nature inspired artists.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, programs for families (children ages 6 through 12) range from lectures and sketch series, such as "Animals in African Art," to family guides such as "art hunts."

"What Time of Day Is It?" is an art hunt that encourages children to explore the galleries of 19th-century European painting and sculpture and see how light is used. "Look at different ways artists paint water and sky at different times of the day," one guide suggests. Program guides also come in Spanish and other languages.

Back at the teapots at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Lorri Berenberg, director of outreach in the department of education, points out the importance of asking children opened-ended questions. Leaders validate what children are saying; there is no right or wrong.

"It's critical to help them connect to something familiar. You don't need to know a lot to discover a lot," Ms. Berenberg says.

Later, children (the average age is 7) are led downstairs to make their own tea sets with cardboard and colored pens, before they get picked up at 5 p.m. One mother, who drove an hour into the city for the program, says her daughter enjoys the activities and being with other children, adding "the exposure [to art] is great."

Self-guided family tours, as opposed to museum-structured programs, also provide families with a reason to come back - and discover on their own. "Unravel the Mystery of the Mummy" is by far the favorite at the MFA. Families are given a brochure with questions, such as "find the painted mummy-shaped case," and drawing exercises such as "decorate this mummy mask."

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, families visiting on Sundays in March can enjoy a calligraphy demonstration and hands-on activity after viewing the exhibition "Splendors of Imperial China."

"Our mission is to serve the nation as well as the local community," says Anne Henderson, head of the department of Teacher and School Programs for the National Gallery.

"Art Around the Corner," for example, brings in fifth- and sixth-graders from the city. And Teacher and School Program packets are available by mail free of charge.

"It's certainly in the museums' best interest to provide teachers with resources. You build your future audience," Ms. Henderson says. Of the thousands of schoolchildren that visit on field trips, all go home with family passes to encourage them to return. This is common practice among most metro art museums now.

At the moment there is a push in education for interdisciplinary learning, Henderson notes, so museums are natural springboards.

Not surprisingly, many museums host home-schoolers on a regular basis.

In that light, every parent or guardian can act as educator amid craft, sculpture, and painting.

"We emphasize parent training so they have skills that they can use independent from the teacher here," says MOMA's Ms. Raimond. "It's looking and talking about art ... and asking questions such as, 'What's going on in this painting?' "

Berenberg at the MFA concurs: "We'd like to think that once parents feel empowered to make it fun for kids, they can go to any museum with that spark ready to ignite interest in their children."

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