Adults are prone to decidedly affirm whether they’re artistic or not; that they understand art or they don’t. “So many adults come to the museum and say ‘I never did this because I wasn’t any good at art,’” McLanahan offers, “and our answer to that is ‘You probably were, but you were being told that maybe you weren’t good at drawing, perhaps you weren’t introduced to printmaking or abstract art. You were being asked to draw in a representational way and you didn’t enjoy that.” She adds that attitudes about what does and does not qualify as art are mostly limited to adults. “Children are way more open-minded.”
There are times when adults introduce judgements into the artmaking environment, and teachers at CMA have to step in. “I worry that we often teach creativity out of students rather than integrating it into the way we want all students to think of themselves, whether they become artists or not,” Hamlin says. “[Making art] correlates with development and brain science. It’s nurture and nature, not versus.” Hamlin notes that elementary school art classes that focus on skills and provide guidelines for what drawing should look like can be detrimental. “I think an emphasis on driving home skills-based instruction can be difficult for early childhood—it reinforces that there are good skills and bad skills, that there are people who have skills and people who don’t.”
In her studies on correlations between drawing and mood regulation, Drake found that in the 10- to 12-year-old age range, children become critical of their drawings skills. “They start to understand that they have limitations and that they can be good in some things and not at other things,” Drake says. “Six- to eight-year-olds are really absorbed in drawing, they can get more lost in it.”
In order to encourage creativity, many museums have adopted an inquiry-based approach, whereby educators prompt children through open-ended questions—emphasizing that there’s no right answer—in order to elicit ideas and incite discussion around art. “It’s really about asking them, ‘What do you see? How does it make you feel? What do you think the artist meant here? Why did they use this material?’ and encouraging them to have confidence in their answers,” says McLanahan. “We encourage you to have confidence in your ability to look and understand, but then we want you to respect someone else’s creativity and someone else’s opinion when we share.”
Don’t dumb it down
Understanding the simple fact that children want to be spoken to like adults, and that cossetting them at a young age can be a hindrance to their development, is central for many art educators. “There’s nothing about our exhibiting artists that makes them suited to children,” McLanahan says of CMA’s program. “It’s just that we’re actively encouraging children to use their minds and think about the work and talk about the work.” Underlying this approach is a recognition of the innate sophistication of children.
CMA puts on shows of emerging and established contemporary artists (the current show includes
, among others); at Sugar Hill, Kelley is engaging contemporary artists living in Upper Manhattan. “If you dumb it down, if you think that children only like graffiti or cartoons or
—it’s a dead end,” McLanahan advises. “We have wall labels that explain what the artist’s intentions are, we try not to use jargon, and we don’t over-explain the work.”
At the Art Institute, an encyclopedic museum that not only caters to all ages but a vast array of international audiences, a similar mindset prevails. “No art, no matter how abstract or supposedly ‘difficult,’ is off-limits for children,” Terrassa notes. “That said, some artwork, because of style or content, might resonate more at different stages of life. For example, artwork that engages with questions of identity might be great for teens, and highly experiential, abstract works can be a hit with very little ones.” She acknowledges that there will be art that may not reflect a family’s values, in which case it is up to a parent or guardian’s discretion.
While visual culture is often boiled down to its essential elements of shape and color, especially for younger audiences, it’s important to keep ideas and narratives top of mind. “Sometimes we underestimate what young kids are able to talk about and do, and read into things,” Hamlin notes. “It’s important to present a balance of pure, aesthetic elements and principles with an understanding of art as a form of communication that helps us talk, express, and connect with each other and with diverse experiences.”
Expose children to the contemporary art world
More and more, museums, schools, and community organizations are recruiting contemporary artists to teach children. The Whitney regularly holds artist-led workshops; all teachers at CMA are practicing artists; and Sugar Hill has an artist in residence each year who interacts with children at the museum, as well as its affiliate preschool. “As social practice art gains traction in the art world and that becomes a way of thinking about what artists can do, museums are really being receptive to artists wanting to do more than just put their objects in a museum,” Hamlin says of this trend. “Artists should be real human beings for kids, not just mythical characters.”