Museums Roll out the Red Carpet for Children as Art Institutions Look to the Future, Family-Friendly Programs Take on New Importance

Article excerpt

"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. …