See Museums in a Difference Light
Brandon Long, Creative Director
I’m proud to say that I have an “Art Family.” My wife teaches art at Garrard County High School and I am Creative Director here at the Community Arts Center in Danville, KY. We both consider ourselves to be artists, even though we’d both readily admit that we don’t spend as much time creating new work as we’d like. Sometimes spreading the fire of creativity to others is as satisfying as kindling your own. My daughters – Jillian (11) and Cora (5) have both taken to enjoying art and are always filling up sketchbooks with their latest doodles. I’d like to say that we are all creatively driven because we each simply “must” create from time to time whether it’s digital art, cardboard dollhouses for toys, or traditional art media. Our house almost always has some sort of project going on in the corners.
My wife and I decided to take the girls to see the Speed Museum’s latest exhibit, Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism for two good reasons. Number one – it was Spring Break. Number two – this was a chance for my daughters to see an exhibition of all female artists breaking the barriers and challenging the status quo of their time. It had been a while since we’d taken the girls to a museum and they’d been asking to go see some art since St. Patrick’s Day, when they found an art history book in the back of the mini-van.
If you’ve never taken your kids to an art museum, I strongly encourage it. If you don’t have kids of your own, borrow someone else’s because there is nothing like seeing art through the eyes of a child. Of course, you need to be sure they know the rules. My kids know the rule, “Don’t touch the art,” since they visit the Community Arts Center regularly. When we are there, my youngest, Cora is constantly reminding me, “don’t touch the art!” But I think that she forgets that I am the guy that installs that the art and therefore must touch it or else we’d have no art shows.
Even though we try to follow the rules, we tend to get in trouble when visiting exhibits. Once Jillian got scolded by a docent for drawing a quick study of some samurai armor in a show in Cincinnati. “No sketching in this exhibit.” Ok. Another time we got reprimanded for filming the girls interacting with Andy Warhol’s helium filled silver Mylar balloons. Sure it was fine to play with the balloons, but “due to the nature of the exhibit – photography is prohibited.” In a Warhol exhibit? I could’ve had a very interesting discussion with the docent regarding Warhol’s stance on appropriation, photography, or filmmaking, but rules are rules I suppose. What I’m trying to say here is – when taking kids to a museum – know the rules, follow the rules, and if you happen to break (or bend) them someone will let you know without kicking you to the curb.
From the moment we arrived, the girls were taken by this feeling of “Whoa!” at sense of scale of the museum. We’ve got a great Arts Center, but it is quite small in comparison to the monument to the arts that the newly-renovated Speed Museum presents. As we made our way to the female Impressionists exhibit, we had to skirt around quite a few modern pieces including a chandelier that looked like a cartoon lightning bolt had cracked the ceiling which Cora loved. Jillian said, “I want to see every piece of art in this place,” – a noble goal, but we had to tell her that museum fatigue is a real thing and that we’d probably not be able to see everything in one trip.
Arriving at the Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism exhibit, we were greeted by paintings from Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, and the girls were taking it all in. It was apparent that Jillian had matured a bit since our last visit to a museum as she was connecting all kinds of details within the paintings and pointing out things that I had failed to notice. She’d add dialog between the characters depending on their expressions and the mood of the piece. We were absolutely amazed at how some of the paintings looked even better than real life.
I’d try to keep Cora interested by pointing out details that she might appreciate, like the texture on a fluffy dog or a cat in the background, but by the second room of the Impressionist exhibit she was already draping herself on the viewing benches and demanding to be carried everywhere. At one point, I carried her around a corner to find a pairing of two paintings – an almost life-sized female nude and a painting of a corpse being dissected. “Let’s not look at that one,” she said- a bit embarrassed by the nude. “Look at that one instead…” as she pointed to the other. “The dead guy getting cut up?” I asked. “Yeah. That one.” Ugh.
Cora’s main problem wasn’t that she was bored, but that she knew that there was a space (like most modern museums) where she could explore, play, and create her own artwork. I know that these experiential-learning spaces have been created to enhance a child’s experience within the museum setting, but in this circumstance I almost felt like it devalued the rest of the experience for her, in the same way that looking forward to a big slice of chocolate cake can ruin a great dinner for kids of the same age. While I agree that these spaces are entirely beneficial to introducing children to the depth that museums have to offer, it does make me wonder if these spaces will continue to evolve in the same way that libraries have evolved their digital offerings while the old books sit gathering dust on the shelves. How can we make the old art interesting to a generation that has grown up with that level of interaction? And an even bigger question: Is that even important?
So to revive Cora, we went to the Art Sparks interactive exhibit (the children’s area) which is packed with all kinds of interesting, interactive, fun, things to do. And she loved it. I loved it. We all loved it. We drew pictures of our breakfast. We made patterns. We played games. We danced in an interactive light projection that would trace your every move and repeat it in vibrant patterns, allowing you to paint your body across the screen like an ever-changing canvas. Jillian particularly enjoyed a touch-screen pad that allowed you to create drawings that would repeat themselves symmetrically – making the simplest drawing into a kaleidoscope of color.
After a quick snack and coffee for Kristin and I, we went back into the regular exhibits to see all (correction: most) of the permanent collection. Cora found a piece of art that she could not live without – an art-deco makeup table with all kinds of lights all over it. I can’t remember if I committed to making her one for her bedroom or not.
We explored African art, Egyptian artifacts, Native American clothing (Cora also wanted a Native American dress) in somewhat of a whirlwind tour of the museum. Cora even picked up a new art term that could only be spoken through whispered giggles – Putti (she pronounces it “Pooty”) is what you call more than one of those naked Renaissance baby angels. Putti is a pretty funny term, but they are pretty funny characters as they always seem to showing up for comic relief purposes in otherwise serious scenes throughout art history.
We had a great trip. Kristin and I loved the new museum remodel, Jillian enjoyed seeing great art and was just the right age to fully appreciate it and ask all the right questions, and Cora enjoyed the hands-on activities. I know some people tend to stress out about taking kids to art museums, but I think it’s a great thing to expand their horizons. Like I said before, take a kid to a museum and you’ll experience art like it’s the first time all over again.