For adults who weren't exposed to much art when they were
children, a visit to a major museum can be a little overwhelming -
the maze of rooms off each hallowed hall, the myriad styles and
genres spanning centuries of tumultuous history, the hushed tones
that signal we are in the presence of greatness. We know just enough
to realize how little we really know.
Some parents unconsciously project a lack of comfort to children,
delaying or even tainting that first art experience. Others may
simply leave art appreciation in the hands of their children's
In response, more museums are courting families, educating and
nurturing two generations of patrons at once.
"Introducing people to art at an early age develops a lifelong
interest," says Jean Sousa, associate director of interpretive
exhibitions and family programs at The Art Institute of Chicago.
"The key for us is making art accessible across the board and
helping families to form relationships between art and their daily
Many educators believe that in viewing a work of art it is as
important to engage the imagination as the eye. Children have a
natural curiosity, and lively discussions can occur when art calls
to mind as many questions as answers: What would this painting sound
like? Where would you like to be if you were in this painting? How
do you think the artist created this texture?
Lucy Micklethwait, author of "Discover Great Paintings,"
encourages children to approach a painting as if it were an unsolved
"You can be the detective who figures out just what is going on.
Look at the evidence and ask yourself questions about it," she
writes. What does a work of art do? Does it tell a story? Portray a
person? Record a scene? Or is it simply decorative?
Too much information?
Biographical and other factual information culled from
accompanying labels can be helpful, but only in limited quantities.
Children are ultimately less impressed with how important a painting
is or who it is by than by how it makes them feel.
That's the honest, instinctive, and refreshingly unbiased
reaction many of us adults have squashed after years of being told
what to think. Rather than demystifying art with concrete
information, many educators recommend leaving ample room for direct
"The world of art has a different meaning for children.... For
them, art is about their life experiences," writes Nancy Beal,
author of "The Art of Teaching Art to Children."
What museums are doing
The easiest place for parents to start is with a "Family Day."
Museums host activities ranging from hands-on art projects to
performances and films. Some have programs on certain days on a
smaller scale, and many, such as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, have
regular drop-in activities that combine appreciation with artmaking. …