Fine Art Family Time: Smith College courts the next generation of museumgoers

The exhibit “Mary Bauermeister: The New York Decade” at the Smith College Museum of Art focuses on the “lens boxes” that the German avant garde artist created in the 1960s. “Her work was shaped by experimentation and the use of found art objects,” notes the museum’s brochure. “Critics were fascinated by her glittering lens boxes, although they struggled to place the work of this unique artist within a particular movement. …”

You might expect to encounter a tweed-jacketed art history professor taking them in, or an art critic examining the works through a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

But on a recent Friday, dozens of children were crowding around the artwork scrutinizing Bauermeister’s puzzling pieces.

Accompanied by parents, grandparents or caregivers, the children — from toddlers to teens — made their way through the first-floor room of the museum. They passed “Palette,” Bauermeister’s assemblage of glass, ink, optical lenses and painted wood created in 1966. They considered “Pictionary,” another looking box Bauermeister made that same year. They peered at “#175 The Great Society,” more glass, ink and optical lenses she made in 1969.

Then they walked out into the museum’s cavernous entryway, picked up their own jewelry-size boxes, glass pebbles and other trinkets and got busy on their own artworks.

Every second Friday of the month, in conjunction with Northampton’s Arts Night Out — an evening of open downtown galleries — the Smith College art museum offers an organized art activity like this one for children and their families. The art project is followed by Open Eyes, an informal, half-hour guided conversation that explores an aspect of one of the museum’s exhibits. The event, which runs from 4 to 8 p.m., is free.

“These nights offer a meaningful but informal experience that helps to demystify the museum a little bit,” said Gina Hall, the museum’s associate educator for school and family programs, who was helping to settle the kids with their projects that recent Friday. “We see this experience as an opportunity to spend relaxed quality time together — as a family — and the museum as a space to explore and build a lifelong love of learning.”

Margi Caplan, the museum’s membership and marketing director, who was also at the event, admitted that Smith has an ulterior motive as well. “We want to convert museumgoers,” she said.

That seemed like a good idea to several of the parents milling about.

“Having kids, it’s hard finding affordable things to do,” said Andi Turowsky, of Shelburne Falls, who was there with her 9-year-old daughter, Stella. They sat at a table with Tony Lemos of Ashfield and her daughter, Zoe, 11. The four of them were happy to have a reprieve from the snowier conditions in the Hilltowns. “It was definitely worth the drive,” said Lemos.

Good fun, good food

Three rectangular tables, each surrounded by a dozen stools, had been set up in the museum’s entryway. A smattering of art supplies — multi-colored beads, circular stickers, tiny white cubes, markers — covered the tabletops. About 40 kids and adults filled the seats and got down to work.

The idea was to create “looking boxes” inspired by Bauermeister’s pieces, explained museum educator Emma Cantrell. The children were invited to layer their bracelet-size boxes with squares of see-through plastic sheets. By drawing on the bottom of the boxes, and then adding beads, opaque pebbles, and other materials between each plastic layer, their creations would be magnified and distorted when observed through the top of the box, just as Bauermeister’s assemblages are.

Noah Perkins, 7, of Westfield busily drew a series of triangles and trees on the inside of his box. “I like looking at the artwork in the gallery,” he said, “and the art activities are fun.”

His mother, Elizabeth Eastman, who was beside him, said the two of them make the drive to Northampton almost every month. “The activities are really creative,” she said. “They always do stuff I wouldn’t have thought of.”

The recent event occurred on a warmer-than-it-had-been evening, the first Friday since daylight savings began. After the long, dark, cold winter, those in attendance — adults in particular — seemed especially pleased to be out and about.

“It’s nice to have an excuse to go to the museum,” said Sasha Raikhlina of Northampton. Raikhlina said it was the fifth time she her daughter, Zoe, 3, had been there. There is the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst and Kidspace at Mass MoCA in North Adams, she noted, but otherwise, there aren’t many places to see art with children.

“Arts Night Out is a great event,” she said. “But it can be hard to participate with kids.”

Shannon Audley-Piotrowski of Northampton, who had brought her 8-year-old daughter, Colette Piotrowki, agreed. “This makes it more accessible,” she said. Colette said she liked a previous activity that involved making faces through etching, but now “this one is best.”

The large room buzzed with activity as the children and their parents worked on the projects. A young boy in Batman pajamas ran around the tables, his father hustling to keep after him. Two girls from the Smith College Campus School — who had taken a field trip to the museum earlier that day and were now returning with their families — talked with Bouchra Bouvian, a Smith College graduate student and museum volunteer whom they had met that afternoon. Other visitors, who had been wandering about town for Arts Night Out from towns as far away as Wendell, stopped in to check out the scene.

Food catered by the college’s Tryson Common cafe was spread across two tables that ran perpendicular to the art tables and participants were invited to help themselves to an assortment including lemon-thyme chicken salad, roasted red pepper hummus, raspberry muffins and blueberry madelines.

Courting future fans

The monthly second Friday events are a big undertaking for the museum, said Caplan. The museum’s staff work extra hours planning and designing the projects, the store stays open later, and the programming is free. But it’s an important part of the museum’s commitment to cultivate a wider audience, she said. “We want kids to feel comfortable in a museum.”

And the staff wants to show children that there is no right or wrong way to look at art, talk about art and make art, said Hall.

“We love it when we see participants of all ages sitting side-by-side — families with young children, a teenager with her mom, grandparents and grandchildren, college students — focused and enjoying their time in the museum.”

“It’s about just giving them the materials and seeing what happens,” added Caplan.

After taking in Bauermeister’s works in the adjoining room, Peter Averill, of Easthampton, baby-holder carrying 3-month-old Yasemin strapped to his chest, walked back into the busy museum looking for Gorkem Cilam. He found her at a nearby table with their 2-year-old son, Logan.

“I love the Smith art museum,” said Averill, who brought Logan last year, even though his son was only 1 year old at the time. “It’s very valuable to have kids looking at art at an early age.”

Averill and Cilam has come this time with Matt Gilbert, also of Easthampton, and his daughter, Gretchen, who had just turned 5. It was the Gilberts’ first time participating in the activity evening. “I didn’t know they offer this, but I was happy to hear about it,” Gilbert said. “It’s like a hidden gem.”

(Originally appeared in the Hampshire Gazette.)

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