How to Foster a Love of Art Whether at Home or Through Visits to Museums and Galleries

By Larissa Phillips

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n 7.5in 8.0in">The Artist Within

Learn More About Museums!
Miles of Museums
Art for the Very Young
For every child who is actually a budding Picasso, or Warhol or Cassatt, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of artistically average children. Despite the fact that no
Chelsea gallery will ever show their work, these children probably spend the better part of their preschool and early elementary years with microscopic amounts of paint permanently dried under their fingernails, random glitter stuck to various items of clothing and probably at least one wall scribble, preferably made in permanent marker. These children are responsible for reams upon reams of paintings and storage bins full of things like popsicle stick sculptures and toilet paper roll and yarn window hangings.

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s=Body style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt; tab-stops: 121.0pt">“I think that the younger you start children in the arts in general, the better off they are in every domain,” says Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène, of HiArt!, a Manhattan art school for children. Referencing the Mozart for babies phenomenon and the black-and-white stimulation mobiles that have become a necessary element in every layette, she argues that by “wheeling your child’s little carriage in front of a painting, you’re going to be setting up all kinds of synaptical connections. People say, ‘Oh, my child is too young to go to a museum.’” She disagrees. “There’s no such thing as too young.”

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Museums for Moms

There are two ways to expose a child to art: looking at art and making art. In New York City, the first objective is exceedingly easy. We may be home to the highest concentration of art museums and galleries of any city this side of the Atlantic. There is folk art, pop art, modern art, classical art and outsider art, to name just a few types. There are major collections and tiny obscure shows. There is heavy, serious art and wacky, goofy, fun art, and one never knows which is going to make the biggest impression. One Brooklyn mom was startled when her 4-year-old suddenly asked when they were going to “see the pencils” again – referring to an Ace Gallery show they’d seen in Chelsea almost a year earlier, which included a room filled with a sort of city of pencils, all cut to varying heights.


Contemporary art may be an obvious choice for small children. What preschooler wouldn’t respond to a giant hamburger by pop art maestro Claes Oldenberg? What child wouldn’t get a jolt out of Jeff Koon’s gold Michael Jackson or his 50-foot-tall Chia pet puppy? What child would not be deeply thrilled by viewing Delvoye’s famous poop-making machine? And what family wouldn’t enjoy, come April and May, the Whitney Biennial’s presence in Central Park, which will include a roller-disco art project, a 50-foot tall pink rubber ketchup bottle topped with a head that resembles a snowman, and a life-sized sculpture of a tiger?


Synapses and Outings

But even more classical art can make an impression. For babies, looking at patterns and being exposed to different colors and designs, is clearly beneficial. In some of Bellen-Berthézène’s classes, she takes 18-month-olds into museums and sits them in front of particular paintings with paper and crayons in their hands. She says the results are striking. “If you look at a child’s work over the course of three months,’” she says, “you will see that they look different.” One may have been done in front of a Picasso, another in front of a Matisse.


But one wonders if such intense effort is necessary. Perhaps babies should be allowed to be babies without flashcards and cultural experiences thrust upon them. Bellen-Berthézène argues that exposure to art is the opposite of pressure. Museum visits should be short – even as short as 15 minutes – and fun.


Mayrav Fisher, coordinator of family programs at the Whitney, agrees. She introduced her own daughters to the art world at a very young age. “I used to have a baby in my backpack and I was talking to her about the art.” As a result, she says, “They became very comfortable talking about art and being in a museum.”


Fisher also recommends adapting art visits to a child’s attention span and advocates smaller doses of more meaningful experiences, something even many adults would do well to learn. Stop the self-torture, the experts say. Regarding art can be an exciting, not a dreary, exercise. Some recommend walking through a museum and only stopping when something catches your eye. ”You don’t have to focus on every single piece,” Fisher says. “Focus on five to eight pieces,” she advises. And for little children, even less: “I would recommend focusing on just a few.”


Fisher’s final piece of advice: “Definitely always have a sketch book in hand. It’s wonderful to have.”


Folk Art

Many museums offer family programs to encourage children to visit. At the American Folk Art Museum, children and families are invited to come in for interactive tours and discussions. Contrary to popular belief, even children can offer insight and opinions on a piece of art. “They have really interesting opinions and ideas and thoughts,” says Rebecca Hayes, manager of school and docent programs at the Folk Art Museum. “We encourage them to look at something critically and help them develop larger ideas.”


Hayes says children are always interested in the fact that folk art is made by people who did not go to art school. “I ask kids if they’ve ever taught themselves how to do something on their own,” she says. “Every kid has taught themselves to do something, like tying a shoe. That’s how we introduce what folk art is.” There is perhaps no better type of art to explain to children that art making is within their reach.


The materials used in folk art are also inspiring to the preschool set: “Buttons, bottle caps, molasses, mud, balls of yarn ...” says Hayes. “Also traditional oil on canvas and sculptures.” It is a rare child who would not be inspired or at least fascinated by something like “Mr. Imagination’s Button Tree.” “It’s a branch potted in a cement base, decorated on every branch with buttons and bottle caps,” says Hayes. “It’s such a spectacular-looking object, very colorful, very animated.” Parents should perhaps be sure they have access to a great deal of buttons before viewing this piece.


Reading and Looking

There are no button trees at the Whitney, but coordinators have come up with other ways to help children relate to the art. In one of the Whitney’s family programs, called “American Stories,” book authors and illustrators are celebrated. “We read a story or have an author come in,” says Fisher, “and then we tie it to a work in the gallery.” So, for example, when the kids read Ezra Jack Keats, whose stories take place in urban neighborhoods, they sat next to a Stuart Davis artwork that depicted a city scene.


“Basically it gives them another way of accessing information,” says Fisher, explaining that children who are more visually oriented may get more out of the story by being close to a related painting – and also may get more out of the painting by hearing a story at the same time. “It works both ways,” says Fisher. But it boils down to visual literacy. “It’s all about looking at a work of art, responding to it, making observations, talking about those observations and supporting the observations.”


Most museums have children’s programs. It’s easy enough to pick a favorite museum, or simply a nearby museum, and visit often. Fisher and others stress the importance of repeat visits to the same place. Visiting the MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Met or the Whitney or any other museum regularly will help a child feel comfortable in that space and perhaps even find a special rapport with certain pieces of art.


Art in Action

But art is not just about looking; it is also about doing. And there is no age group that is more ready to do art than children. “Children by their very nature are artists,” says Marya Warshaw, executive director of Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) in Park Slope. “We lose that over time, but we come to the earth with it.”


There are parents who claim that they are not creative, or not artistic – and, thus, don’t think of educating their children in the arts – but arts educators scoff at this idea. “People say they are not creative,” says Bellen-Berthézène. “OK, so you are an investment banker. But think of the top level person in your field. They are creative. In another form they are in touch with their ability to create and envision their own world.” She is adamant that whatever field a child ultimately chooses, art making is an essential part of their growth. “It’s a vital life experience that will lead them to whatever life they choose.”


Emotional Outlets

>Once children start school, the expectation to get in line and give a correct answer can be intense. “We live in New York City,” Bellen-Berthézène says. “We want our children to be the best.” But when that pressure becomes overwhelming, she believes that children need an outlet. “One very powerful outlet they can find is through the arts. So when they‘re upset with you or with their best friend, they can go into their rooms and they can do one of those things that belong to them. A child who has learned from a very young age that art is theirs, can go into a whole new world and invent a thousand new things.”


>Wendy Miller of Kids at Art, an art school for kids in Manhattan, agrees. “Making art is a really important way for kids to express themselves,” she says. “I think you can learn a lot about your child by looking at their art.”


>After 9/11, she says, her classes were filled with drawings about plane crashes. “Even now they do a lot of planes crashing into buildings. You know it’s still lurking.”


>Both Miller and Bellen-Berthézène stress that children should be given art materials, in addition to the space in which to make a mess – or, rather, to make art. If home space is limited, parents should find an art class, take pastels and paper to the playground or, as suggested above, become regulars at an art museum, sketch books in hand. Parents may feel that their refrigerators or hallway galleries may soon be lost under the weight of all that creativity, but those in the know insist it is worth it. (When you run out of gallery space, you can always take a picture of the full gallery and toss the paintings.)


>For those parents who remain unimpressed by the fine scribbles of a preschooler, educators uniformly insist that “ability” is not an issue. “Most children are not going to be budding geniuses,” says Warshaw. “But every child deserves to have that artist within them realized.”