Teaching Children to Appreciate Art

I have a confession to make: As a child, I hated visiting museums and galleries. I grew up in rural Idaho where the closest art museum was a day’s car ride away, so this shouldn’t have been a problem. My father is an artist, however, and this meant that we travelled extensively to shows and galleries. Many of our travels involved traipsing through art galleries and museums for hours on end.

Art was an everyday part of my life as I watched my dad work, and so it was hard for me to think of a visit to a museum to look at hundreds of works of art as an adventure.

I’m sure I found some of the art interesting, but after ten or fifteen minutes in a museum, I would have seen enough. I’m sure my parents endured a great deal of complaining and whining from me and my siblings. I couldn’t imagine that my parents truly found the art interesting – I suspected that they derived some kind of sadistic pleasure out of dragging us through the galleries until our eyes bugged out and our legs buckled.

Recently, Carrie and I took our children on a tour of upstate New York, bits of Pennsylvania and Northern Ohio. We visited historic sites, Niagara Falls, and took in the green, wooded countryside (quite a shock for our desert-dwelling children).

We ended the trip in Cleveland, and since our flight didn’t depart until late in the afternoon, I thought it would be a great idea to take our children to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

You should have heard the groans when I announced my intentions! I quickly realized that the baton had passed from one generation to the next and that I was now my parents. Truth be told, I may have even taken some secret pleasure in the whines and groans . . .

The thing is, my childhood visits to galleries and museums did plant the seeds of a deep and abiding love of art. I’m extremely grateful that my parents insisted I experience great works of art in museums. I feel I owe it to my children to provide similar experiences.

And so, we set off for the museum. I had visited the Cleveland Museum of Art previously, and had fallen in love. The museum itself is beautiful, and the art collection is broad and well-displayed. After the Met in New York, Cleveland’s museum just might be my favorite in the country.

Before our visit with our children, I had gone on the museum’s website to find out when docent tours were offered. We arrived just as a tour was beginning. Our docent was an immigrant from Hungary, and her accent made it a little hard for my kids to understand what she was saying. As they became accustomed to her accent, however, and as we visited the various exhibits in the museum, my children seemed to pay more and more attention.

There were whispered complaints about tired feet from our nine-year-old, and some mutterings about the tour being “boring,” but when the tour ended after about an hour, something interesting happened. Instead of wanting to bolt out of the museum, my kids wanted to go back and look more closely at art we had moved by quickly.

Each of our children seemed to find something of particular interest. Our seventeen-year-old daughter wanted to spend more time in the modern art gallery. Our fourteen-year-old son was fascinated by the ornate suits of armor and swords in the Armor Court (of course). Our Eleven-Year-Old daughter loved the ornate china and tea services in the decorative arts gallery. Our nine-year-old was fascinated, if slightly exasperated, by the pop art section, and modern gallery (at one piece she said, “This makes me very angry!” so we talked about what makes modern art so interesting).

This nine-year-old skeptic wasn’t sure what to think of the modern art collection

We saw works by Caravaggio, Monet, Picasso, Sargent, Turner, Warhol, Rothko and many other artists that they have learned about in school through the Art Masterpiece program.

Our docent had shared interesting facts about various artists that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. I was able to share insights from the many biographies of artists’ lives that I have read. I think those extra insights turned what could have been a boring walk around to look at “pictures” into a journey into the history of art.

In the end, the art museum ended up being one of our favorite stops on the trip, which does my heart good.

One visit to an art museum probably isn’t life-changing, but I hope we are doing our part to instill a love of the visual arts in the next generation.

How Did You Gain Your Love of Art?

Did your parents drag you to art museums? If you have children, what did you do (or are you doing) to instill a love of art in them? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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19 Comments

  1. How did i gain my live of art? I honestly do not know. It was not stressed in our house. I know there were some original oils (genre paintings) but not one word about them ever. Later I would guess they were painted by My great aunt’s husband. he was a house builder (but I think he was much nearer an architect).
    I never knew him as his widow, my great lived with us and was a kind of nanny to us kids.
    I was always making things though and pushing the limits of whatever “kit” I received like Lincoln Logs and the fore-runner of lego, collages, drawings, etc.
    My first museum trip was when I was in undergrad art school.
    All I can say, is that looking back, I seemed to always be thinking “art”, and asking a thousand questions. Poor mom, and dad.

  2. I live in the Chicago suburbs, so art museums and galleries in the city were a short drive or train ride away. I started taking my three boys when they were quite small. I would target specific exhibits that I thought they would like, and we’d go for 30 minutes. Then we’d go for ice cream. As they grew older, our visits grew longer, and they could pick what to see. By the time they were college-aged, they went to museums on their own. Now they are art collectors in their own right.

  3. I grew up on Air Force bases, and then small towns, so galleries and museums were not accessible to us. I didn’t get to see a good museum until my thirties. I was fascinated by so many wonderful artists in books my entire life, and to then see Andrew Wyeth’s Braids painting as I first entered the Museum of Fine Arts Houston almost brought me to my knees. Appreciating images we see online or in books is good, but nothing compares to seeing them in person. I wish I had started visiting museums much earlier.
    A wonderful experience for your children!

    1. Hate to admit it, but you had me with ‘Docent’. Had to Google it. Great word, or at the very least; a decent one.. Har, Har… Thanks for the lesson!

  4. My mother was an artist and an art teacher. Some of my earliest memories are of our sunny playroom strewn with our drawings and art materials. We always had access to her art materials and she was never put off by the messiness of our art projects. I’m always struck by the art anxiety I sense in many adults who don’t consider themselves to be artists. I suspect they were told that they had to color the sky blue and the grass green. Mom believed that every child has a natural instinct to create which will grow as long as you don’t interfere by imposing too many rules.

  5. I grew up in NYC and my father was an opera singer so I was exposed to quite a lot of art all the time. It never bored me and I was always glad to go. I also loved the Natural History Museum. When my kids were young , growing up in central Illinois we did not have quite so many opportunities but for the most part they seemed to love museums and galleries of all types, from art to science to history (and aquariums), As long as we fed them and left at a reasonable time we had fun.

  6. Where I grew up was a long way from any art museums and my parents had no interest. There was 1 painting from their time in Brazil and some impressionist prints on the walls. I think my interest started with the joy of making art and grew into true appreciation only when I was old enough to travel to see original art. I had seen various portraits in the municipal buildings and my peer’s art; and we had books with pictures of art and my art history classes had slides, but until I saw well known art in person, I did not fully appreciate it. Now going to art museums and galleries is the focus of our travel.

  7. As a child that grew up in the 1950s, my first exposure to art of any kind was Walt Disney. The Mickey Mouse Club TV show was like church to me so my parents bought me books on Disney. They featured the background artists as well and that fascinated me. I wanted to be an animator. I thought that would be the most fun job in the world. I quickly learned that I was not an animator by any stretch of the imagination but those books taught me about the dramatic use of color and harmony and layout. My father got a Time-Life series on the great artists of the world and that led me to start studying by copying the styles of the masters. In high school, I was approached to design sets for the plays and musicals. That took me into a whole new area of art and design and I have been doing that ever since. I don’t think I ever went to a museum until I was in college but I make it a point to always go when I visit a new city. My favorite so far is the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.

  8. Both my parents and my grandmother were artists so it was always a “thing” in our lives. The only museum I remember from childhood is the Detroit Historical museum. I went to college right across the street from the Detroit Institute of Arts so I would go there whenever I had a chance. Used to sit in the Diego Rivera courtyard and read. My art classes had assignments there. When I later took my kids to museums their reaction was similar to yours. “Boring”. “Oh, I could do that” about the modern art. “My feet hurt.” Fast forward a few years two of the three LOVE art museums. They plan trips around them. My oldest has spent hours in the Milwaukee Art Museum studying their Rothkos.

  9. I grew up in the Toledo, Ohio area and I struggled in school. But in 7th grade a teacher saw my drawing and gently touched my arm and quietly exclaimed “You can draw!” That was all the encouragement I needed. I went on to build a HS portfolio which earned me free Saturday classes at the Toledo Museum of Art. My portfolio then brought me college scholarships and I went on to earn my bachelor’s in art education, then a master’s. As I taught art 37 years, K-college, I ALWAYS included art museum field trips to Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Fremont, Marblehead, Pittsburgh and Washington DC. I am blessed to still teach today and my artwork is in three art galleries. Art appreciation simply enriches lives and those planted seeds CAN change a life! Thank you for your worthwhile article and including photos of some of my CMA favorites!

  10. I love this!!! I started taking my son to art galleries and museums as an infant. His first outing was to a small exhibition of African masks at 6 months old. I held him up at eye level to the masks and we looked at them one by one. His eye contact with the eyes of the masks was intense. He was studying and connecting!! At 2 we went to a Mary Cassatt exhibit in Chicago and I told him to look for “mommies and little boys” – he had no trouble with this! Our fun in museums has never stopped and recently we made our way to Barcelona together to take in all of the works of Gaudi, Miro, Picasso, and others….He is 22 years old now and is my #1 assistant at the small art gallery I own and direct. We talk about art, architecture, and aesthetics all the time! — The photos of your family at the Cleveland Museum of Art are precious — that museum is one of my huge favorites. Thanks for this timely article and all the inspiration it provides.

  11. Jason,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and yet humorous article about growing up with art and helping your children to do so.

    I may have mentioned before that my artist husband Peter basically grew up at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It probably has more memories for him than any other museum in the country. His parents were both incredible artists in ceramics, though he never liked the feel of clay in the winter months! The other place so special to him is Greenfield Village, Henry Ford’s estate in Michigan. His dad was the village potter there for several years before he began working in design at Mercury Lincoln Motors in Detroit.
    Eventually his dad took a position in ceramics at Kent State University. But Peter often mentions that they took them to various museums and parks in that area when he was growing up there.

    Our children have not been to as many museums as he did and although they always enjoyed creating art as children, their creativity has drifted towards the more “tech” fields. But they still live at home and are happily surrounded by generations of art and antiques so we have provided a strong foundation for them. And often they would go to galleries or outdoor shows with mom and/or dad. Right now, Peter has been doing You Tube videos with his art and now his improvisational music; and the most wonderful thing is that our younger son does all the technical editing for him with a great visual and audio sense about what really works!! Even though Peter has an MS in Cinema from USC in Los Angeles, the techniques were so different in the age before the digital editing, etc. that he really depends on Philip for his discernment and current technological knowledge to complete these projects successfully.
    I am so happy for your children…and know they will always have those art experiences as part of their true childhood education…no matter what course they end up pursuing.

    Thanks again.
    Jill

  12. I was working in the theatre and our children grew up sitting in the stalls watching rehearsals of many classical pieces . When I went on holiday with them especially to places like Amsterdam or places in Italy, I would choose a few specific paintings to look at in the gallery. Then we would talk about them. To this day, when they are in their forties they can remember in detail, those paintings. Just walking through a museum with children is not fun for them but as Jason has done let them sometimes pick a painting and really look at it means so much. My children both work in artistic professions.

  13. Thanks goes out to each of you for your sharing! It’s encouraging to say the least, as I have found myself in the position of “teacher” of some neighbors, 2 adults & 3 children, 4-10 yrs of age. The initial plan was based on a tried and true; mono-chromatic sunset with three value changes, ending in a near black foreground where unsure hands create silhouettes of rocks, bushes, cacti and so on. It didn’t come to pass last weekend for a few reasons, but mostly; a casual, fun time for all in the past now has a bit different feel when applying the CDC guidelines to each aspect of the “paint party”. Closer scrutiny of my donor canvas’ via cleaning led to an impromptu “Plan B” a few hours prior to the class. I should point out; I have no training as an edumacatur whatsoever, nor do I pretend to. That said, I do have one thing going that I believe is essential in this, the subject of your blog; I step into their shoes and act according to what can they do quickly, in a “monkey see, …do” manner. 3 rows of mountains have been the go-to key to mini masterpieces till the other day. The flawed primed canvas’ were tossed to the side & instead I donated 3-D pieces that were not destined for a Gallery exhibit. Primed dark brown/gray with a quickness, set em in the Az sun, and 20 minutes later had enough for each to have a variety to pick from. One earache and one work thing has put the results in the future, but two kids have chosen their pieces to paint, as did one of the adults, most are still unbelieving of the fact that with a minimal amount of guidance from me they will create awesomeness! I’ve been told I change or affect lives on the rare occasions that I put these short lessons together, but I can see the truth on their faces, in their eyes as they see what THEY created. The art is what affects us. Changes us. Were the whole planet aware of all the beautiful art in the world, or universe for that matter, maybe we’d appreciate each other a bit more… Regardless of the outcome, if appropriate for this forum my next post will include result images.

  14. I didn’t have art until 3rd grade and loved every minute from then on. My parents took me to Saturday morning art classes at the Newark Museum (NJ) for a year, we did a lot of exploration of materials there. My dad was an untrained but accomplished watercolor artist but never painted once I was born. My interest in art was inherent I guess and I decided to major in art education in college. I taught elementary art for 37 years and introduced all my students to artists and art history from the beginning. We had class trips to local museums and many lessons reflected artist styles and genres. It was important for me to instill in all of my students a love of art and I would like to think I was successful. I now have the time to pursue my own art now that I am retired.

  15. My dad was a California Scene painter (think Millard Sheets and Phil Paradise). Every Sunday when I was little we went out “sketching” in the then-rural land surrounding Los Angeles. Over the course of the day, Dad and his friend Marjorie Matthews, (an artist crippled by polio when she was a teen) would complete three or four quarter-sheet Plein air watercolors. I’d walk along the side of the road and pick up rocks or sit in the back seat with Mom and complain.

    There were a lot of museum trips. Dad told me that when I saw Brancusi’s Bird in Flight I said “birdie”, which both he and Mom found startling. There were also gallery openings and trips to Laguna (at that time an artist’s colony). I grew up surrounded by art and thought everybody else did too.

    We took our daughter to museums and galleries in Southern California when she was old enough to appreciate them. Trips usually involved lunch in a place she enjoyed and some time outdoors. When it was just the two of us, I let her lead the way through the display and encouraged her to tell me about any work that caught her eye in either a good or bad way. Usually, she had a story. Her own curiosity led her to find out about the artists and her taste went through phases. As a teen she was obsessed by Maxfield Parrish (not my fav). She decorated her room with gushy posters. Later we supported one another in trauma after attending an Anselm Kiefer show.

    I guess what I’m saying is the best way, at least for me, is to listen to children and learn from them. Don’t teach as much as engage with them and appreciate their individual journey in art, as in everything else.

    Jason, sounds like you are doing just fine.

  16. Great to see you engaging your kids. I did the same and my daughter, now she always checks out museums and galleries when she travels. Since she has a mother that’s a painter it helps her see the hard work I put into my art so that may have played a part as well.
    Great writing!

  17. My Dad was an artist; I’ve always loved going to art galleries and discussing art. In 2000 I was in Saint Petersburg, Russia with my husband & children. We took our 12yo son & 16 yo daughter to the Hermitage for the day. We hired a young university student to take us on a tour, a way for her to practice her English and for us to learn about some of the highlights in this massive gallery. At the end of the tour both our son & daughter asked to stay and continue exploring and we ended up going back for a further two days, each of us exploring areas that caught our attention, at their request. To this day we all still talk about that amazing place.

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