Does art make kids smart?

We spent many a Sunday with the kids at the Cleveland Museum of Art. At first all they wanted to do was slide down the marble banisters. Then, thanks to a stroke of genius and a dollar bill, five art critics – and lovers – were born.

David Goldman/AP/File
Lori Nash and son Theo, 4, of Atlanta, watch a video piece that is part of the exhibition 'The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden' at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Oct. 31.

There is perhaps no better way to start the day than to log onto the morning paper and stumble across a study that confirms your deeply held beliefs or gives you reason to say to your wife something like, “See, that ‘bad habit’ of mine is actually good for me.”

I recently read about a study that will come in handy when some well-meaning child of mine buys me a book of crossword puzzles in the hopes that it will keep me sharp. The study reports that rigorous physical exercise was found to be much more effective at developing new neural pathways than doing crossword puzzles. I hate crossword puzzles. And that Japanese game with the numbers? I hate that, too. But I do love playing basketball and squash.

And just the other day I was greeted with evidence of my superior parenting, evidence I promptly e-mailed my children. A study, reported in The New York Times, finds that visiting art museums improves critical thinking in schoolchildren.

I assume it takes more than a visit to the gift shop or a croissant at the cafe to improve critical thinking. I assume some actual viewing of art is required. And here’s the problem with that. 

Taking kids to the art museum can be a bit like offering kids a nutritious snack. You can sell the outing as good news/bad news. The good news is we’re leaving the house today. The bad news is we’re not going to the mall. (And as a parent you want to avoid the mall – and any other place – that has multiple branded items for sale.)

So my wife and I spent many a Sunday with the kids at the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the country’s finest art museums. And did I mention admission is free?

I don’t know about the schoolchildren in the study, but the only thing our kids wanted to do at first was slide down the marble banisters. Or touch the paintings. After a few visits that ended with stern looks from docents and security guards, my wife and I came up with an idea. It happened in front of a large sculpture of a head with lots of cracks and fissures in it. The piece was untitled. We pointed that out to the kids. I tossed out a few lame names for the piece. Then we announced that the kid who came up with the best name would win a buck.

Five art critics were born. We couldn’t drag them away. Pretty soon they were renaming pieces of art already titled. And to name something is to understand it. To discover what’s essential about it. To name a piece of art is to put a conceptual frame over it. Anytime things got a little dull on a Saturday or Sunday – or maybe when they could use a few extra bucks – our kids suggested a trip to the art museum.

Today, they’re all in their 20s. And they love art museums – and art. They are regular visitors to museums and galleries in the various cities in which they live. I don’t have evidence that these visits improved their critical thinking, but I do have proof that I passed out fewer dollars at the art museum than I would have at the mall.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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