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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25 Comments

  1. I don’t remember any museums growing up. The first ones I visited were on my own in college.
    However, my daughter fared less well. She was hauled along to museums and galleries i wanted to see.
    She didn’t complain as much as run through the various exhibitions, winning the foot race and having to wait.
    What was the result? Amazingly she picked up a lot o nuance, detail, and knowledge. I like to think that what I modeled in terms of art’s importance at last to me, counted for something.
    One visit in particular I will share. After the Florence Flood and the restoration of the Cimabue Crucifix which I had studied in art school, it came to the Met. We went to see it. I was taken completely off-guard by its restored appearance and overwhelmed. I stood there and cried, sobbing.
    She was with me. We haven’t talked much about it but she understood that the umber patches used to have colors that were gone forever. A lot more than just art happened in that moment.
    Art is integral to living a human life. We marginalize or demean it and the makers at our peril. Museums need to be better at inviting us all in, but we have to go no matter what, just as we artists have to produce our images, no matter what.

  2. My art is something that a lot of people around these parts have never seen. Digital Fractal designs are something that fascinate folks and I love it when kids come by my tables at a show. I get to educate them by telling them it’s pure geometry, and watch their wonder as I explain that they too can make such art, or how they can look for fractals in the world around them.

    It’s the BEST feeling ever when I get a youngster coming to me to purchase a small work of art, and they tell me it’s their first one. I purposely keep some low priced pieces, smaller in size, so that those young potential art lovers can afford something that could be their first step into collecting art. I’ve only had that happen a couple times, but it’s enough to inspire me to keep it going. Such a delight to reach young minds. 🙂

  3. Jason, I can relate 100% to this article…I was only introduced to the very classic art mainly portraits and still life, and found it too contrived and rigid…it was only later on that I saw the impressionists and modern art that I was completely taken in especially with Rothko also one of my favorites.

    It was great that you exposed your children to the whole “enchilada” you can tell by their gestures which ones were their favorites, great choice of how to spend an afternoon with the family.

    Monica Gewurz Vancouver BC

  4. My father was an opera singer with The Met in NYC. Needless to say I grew up hating classical music and opera especially, although I was impressed by a few shows I saw. It wasn’t until after my dad passed away, when I was twenty, that I myself felt free to perform music, and many years after that I would get into opera which I truly appreciate now. As a record store owner and a painter I was very careful how much art, theater and music I exposed my children to. One of them appreciates art and music and the other wishes I had spent my time developing video games.

  5. I grew up 40 miles north of Toronto Ontario, Canada when it was still rural. In grade 3 I went on a school trip to the McMichael Canadian Collection that houses works by The Group of Seven and Emily Carr, the building was built of huge BC fir logs and sprawled with wings. A 20 foot cascading waterfall greeted us in the foyer and the first smell of oil paint hit my brain.
    As our little cluster toured before large paintings of landscapes, Indian villages and portraits while listening to stories of how the artists travelled for extended periods of time by train, boat, canoe, and snowshoe ( this was in early 1900’s) through Algonquin Park, above Lake Superior, to the Arctic and out west, and the early death of Tom Thomson at Canoe Lake, all that art and nature awakened me. It didn’t hurt that A.Y. Jackson who was an old man by then, was there and spoke to us. I sat crossed legged on the floor close to him, remembering his long legs and cane. I wish I could remember what he said.

    1. We Canadians have most certainly all been influenced by the “Group of Seven”. I was a student at Ontario College of Art (now OCADU) when the McMichael Gallery first opened it’s doors, and in later years lived not far from there. It remains one of my favourite places. I also recall meeting ” A.Y.” in the little painting shack, on the property and once had the pleasure of briefly speaking with A.J. Casson. Hard to imagine that at the time their paintings were considered too bold, bright, garish and deemed ”unacceptable’ by traditional standards.To day their works and those of Emily Carr are iconic symbols of Canada.

  6. I loved visiting the MOMA in NYC when I was there on a business trip (about 19 years ago…way before kids). I’ve also been privileged to visit the Bargello Museum in Florence, Italy (a little treasure – since the line at Uffizi is usually too long), and La Piazza Museum in Sweden, where we only had an hour to rush in and see what we could before they closed. Seeing a Monet or Rembrandt in person is truly amazing, and an experience I treasure in my lifetime. Donatello’s David and many other beautiful sculptures are at the Bargello. And, of course, The Pieta in the Vatican is truly moving (almost to tears) in person – something I haven’t experienced just looking at photos of the sculpture.

    These are all experiences I would love to share with my husband and kids, but my trip to Italy taught me that younger kids don’t understand or appreciate what they are seeing. There was a family with younger kids on our tour in Italy and they had no understanding of the magnitude of what they were able to see and do that most people don’t ever experience. I think we will try this when they are young adults – more able to appreciate what a trip out of the country and what seeing these things really means!

    We haven’t taken our kids to many of museums, but we do frequently take them to local exhibition openings at galleries. Their long-term interest in the paintings is generally low once they’ve seen them all, but they do enjoy the snacks! We also take them to dance performances (contemporary and sometimes ballet). The charter school they attend has a Fine Arts focus, so art, music and dance are part of their required curriculum and visual art is incorporated into their core assignments weekly. There are reproductions of the great masters hanging in all the hallways at the elementary school. I love those components of the school!

    I think a docent tour at a local art museum is a great idea for one of our family activities. I’m going to add that to the list! 🙂

  7. After graduating from high school I worked at a business college that was across the street from the Akron Art Museum in Ohio. This gave me multiple opportunities to visit the museum on my lunch hour (admission was free). I got to know the place pretty well and can still remember some of the exhibits–I’m in my 70’s now. Although I grew up in the area, I never got to see the Cleveland Art Museum. I now live in northern California so probably won’t get there. We have a significant number of museums here (San Francisco, San Jose) so there are many exhibits. However, if a traveling exhibit is popular (such as the recent Monet exhibit), the crowds require making reservations and the entry fee is significant, not to mention parking, etc. Sure miss the ‘good ole days’ when I could just walk across the street to view some amazing art.

  8. I wanted to draw and paint since I was in preschool. There is a class picture they took and all the kids are sitting down except for me. I’m at the easel painting. I was always curious about how a painter made their marks and chose the color and composition. When I get the chance to go to a museum with school, I would get as close as I could to examine what I was looking at. I told my dad that I wanted to be an artist and he pretty much told me “NO.” Now I am an art docent to kindergarten kids and every other month I take large phots of famous artists paintings into the classroom and we talk about the artist and his work.

  9. I had parents who argued and I spent my childhood up in my bedroom making things, and listening to music. I made a huge college of boxes. I painted and drew. My room was a mess and I just knew I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. In the forth grade, the two best artists were picked to go to the Toledo Museum of Art Children’s Saturday classes. I wasn’t picked! I cried and cried and my parents found out that if a kid attended the art History lectures for a year they would allow the child in not the program. I did this for a year and was able to become a kid in the TMA Saturday children’s classes. When I started undergrad school the TMA was where the Toledo University had their art program so again the TMA became my muse. Having the museum near as a resource was wonderful and when I visit or see a piece in a traveling show, it is like seeing and old friend. Art was my rebellion and helped me focus my life. Today I paint and teach drawing.

  10. I was fortunate to live on the outskirts of Cleveland and took an art history class at Akron University which entailed going to the museum to do projects. It is a great museum. I have taken my granddaughter who loves to make art of her own to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum but not sure of the long term effects. I think having them listen to a docent, even with protest, is valuable as they, as you say, tend to skim through. However you never know what sticks. Exposure to classical, modern and all forms of art is important.I do more realistic art but she may like to do whatever she pleases. The same girl was selected to represent her school with a piece which was an interpretation of Starry Night by Van Gogh done at school so it is all good.

  11. I was born in England during the 2nd World War My father was in the army and away for the first 3 years of my life. He built a bond with myself and my brother by sending a drawing for each of us at regular intervals, with a short message from ‘Dad’. My mother stuck all these precious works of art in a dressmakers catalogue (there being no such things as spare paper for scrapbooks during the war). I still have this treasured collection which I show now to my grandchildren. It was my 1st taste of the wonders of communication through art.
    My other childhood memory was of my mother borrowing my box of coloured chalks. We had just got home after a walk in the park at sunset, and obviously inspired by the wonderful vista, she set to on the kitchen table. I was totally amazed that she could do this sort of thing and together with my fathers talents, it demonstrated a whole new world to me at 6 years old, which has developed into a lifetime of joy in all forms of art practice.

  12. When I was a teenager there was a major retrospective of Andrew Wyeth paintings. TIME magazine put a picture of “Christina’s World” on the cover and it captured my imagination. My family lived in Alexandria, VA. The Wyeth exhibit was going to Baltimore. My father agreed to take me (and most of the rest of the family) to the Wyeth in Baltimore. The line was hours long, but we waited and waited. The museum snaked the line through the other downstairs galleries, so after an hour or so, we were inside the museum, amid the wonderful Matisse paintings. I had never seen them, never heard of Matisse. I was totally captivated. Wyeth was good, but discovering Matisse was amazing. I’m so grateful that my dad took my request seriously and that we got the bonus of seeing so much of the Baltimore museum. I remember seeing a strange Picasso and asking Dad why that was art. Dad said he thought it might have been a joke, which it well may have been–it was a good answer. Kids aren’t usually exposed to the humor in art. After my initial exposure to Matisse, Dad took me to a Van Gogh exhibit and I took myself to the Mellon Family collection when it was displayed at the National Gallery in DC. Again I was blown away, this time by Bonnard and Vuillard. I’ve been into art ever since (and I’ve drawn and painted, primarily in watercolor ever since my dad gave me an old brush and set of his paints when I was 4. There’s nothing like making art to pique a child’s interest.

  13. When I travelled with the children 1boy, 1girl I used to spend time looking at 1 particular picture. When we were in Amsterdam we went to the Rjiks museum and I spent the time talking about “The Night Watch” yes we walked past other pictures but till this day they still can describe 30 years later the night watch. We then went to Paris and our daughter did n’t want to look at the “Slaves” in the Louvre , so stayed by herself at the entrance while my son and I went and looked.London was something else, we went to “The British Museum”My son and myself went off to see something, my daughter decided she didn’t want to come. We came back to meet her about half an hour later No daughter. She had totally disappeared.I knew she would not leave the museum alone, but have you ever tried to find a child in the British Museum? after about 1 hour asking every keeper if they had seen a little girl alone , I thought we would leave. suddenly she showed up. she had been to see what she wanted. The fun of taking children to Museums.

  14. I don’t remember ever going to a gallery or museum when I was a child. But, I always loved drawing and coloring as most kids do. In high school, I was the one that drew the posters for events and sports, and the large football player run-thru, etc. When I started a family 47 years ago, I was playing around with Walter Foster books and trying to paint. It just progressed from there. I would say most of my first 10 years or more was learning from books.

    I just recently took my two grandsons to the Booth Western Museum in Cartersville, GA. They were 12 and 9 years old. It is one fantastic museum. I go there when I can, and I decided to create a “scavenger hunt” type experience for them. I looked at various paintings, and found things I thought they might enjoy looking for, etc. I created about five sheets of questions with tips, and spaces for them to write down the answers… and had it on a clip board. The 9-year old was not as much interested, but he did come help with some of the things when I asked. The 12-year old did as I asked, and I think he enjoyed it. There were times I just let the 9-year old go quickly around and into the next room, but would call him back after letting him have his freedom for 10 minutes. He always found something he wanted to show me. I think they enjoyed it, and who knows what they will remember. I know it couldn’t hurt! I am right now thinking of taking them to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. They have such a variety of art, there will be stuff they can enjoy and the other, more traditional art that I want to expose them to.

    I wish our school systems would bring art and music back into the curriculum in a bigger way. It is needed, and I believe teaching children about creativity of any kind will serve them better and help make a better adult in whatever endeavor they choose as such.

  15. My experience was different from Jason’s, but it was a long time ago. Museums were free, and my artist mother brought her easel and copied works that she was studying, while we explored and got to know the museum very well. It was nearby, and we spent a lot of time there. This was in San Francisco – the museum I knew has been torn down and replaced with a hideous modernist building, with a staggering entrance fee. Visiting most museums today is too expensive for families. Ohio excepted!

  16. Fortunate to have a mother who was a musician and a dad who taught me to draw as I sat on his lap. He would tell me stories and illustrate them as I watched. I began drawing at the age of 3…”how do you make a fence go away” my childlike way of saying perspective. My mother told me to keep looking at the neighbor’s fence. They say I sat there looking at it for hours. I have always loved the museums. I went weekly to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh…their lectures were a favorite of mine. My favorite galleries then would be anything ancient, from Egyptian art to Greek statues. Museums are to me a place to stay as long as possible…for me it’s home.

  17. My mother took art lessons and was primarily a landscape artist. She also became proficient in charcoal and pastels and did portraits of dogs. We did go to a few galleries in San Francisco. Also I had an aunt who let me look at her big coffee table book “Art Treasures of the Louvre “. I was given Walter T. Foster books on how to draw by my mother ‘s instructor.

  18. My love of art began early on, when my mother encouraged my love of drawing and scrapbooking by enrolling me in an art class at age 6. The culmination of that class was,a block print of a drawing, an elephants head poking out of trees,and leaves, that she kept for years, and finally gave to me to keep. When in school, my dad encouraged me by buying a series of books on various impressionists, and a book on a famous art collector at the turn of the last century.

  19. Growing up I had very limited exposure to the art world (my Mother was a horticulturalist and my father was an engineer – so both were much more practical rather than creatively focused). But thankfully, they recognised my artistic talent and encouraged me to go to college to pursue a professional art career. I credit my amazing college professors at the College of Saint Rose with opening up the world of art to me. Now that I have my own children, they begrudgingly occasionally accompany me to a museum or art gallery when they have no other options to get them out of it! And yes, the moans and groans begin! Inevitably, they find sections that they love and sections they think are a complete waist of their time…but all of it gets their young minds thinking which pleases me as a parent. That’s really the point, right? Last week I brought my children up to see a show I have several paintings in. The moans and groans began as usual. Interestingly, they thought it was boring until they discovered one of my paintings had won an award – then all of a sudden they were proud that their Mom had accomplished something in their minds. So I suppose everything is relevant, and as a patents (& artists) we just keep bringing new experiences to our amazing families!

  20. So Fun! I enjoyed the photos – especially the modern art skeptic! I’ve had some similar looks from my children’s faces and admittedly my own as a struggling young artist back in the day! I grew up In Grant Wood Country so I spent a lot of time at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and made the occasional trip to the Chicago Museums. I love Art Museums! However, I have never found anyone who wants to go as slow as I do! I have also given art lessons to kids for 35 years. My favorite lessons are where we study famous artists and their styles and then the kids get to creat their own work with the same process. It’s amazing how creative young art lovers can be!

  21. When we took our 13-year-old son for a month-long tour in Italy and Austria it was quickly boring for him to enter yet another church so I suggested a game, an inquiry if you will, to seek out and take note of the devils and the angels. Did they have feet?
    wings? fangs? Were they scary? And suggested other things that might appeal to a teenage boy… like all the reliquaries… bones and body parts!

    Later, we begin to discuss the shape of the church spaces and where you entered and how the volume felt. Usually it was a one-sided discussion, but he did listen.

    Then one day in a museum we cheaped out on the additional cost of the audio headset program and only rented one headset which our son wore.

    This had a profound impact on our son because now he was the more knowledgeable one and he would come to us and say look at that sculptural figure with it’s weight on one leg and this was unique because…etc.

    He was the teacher and he liked it!

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