Kids Making Modern Art Less Intimidating For Adults

I came across a link to a post on the Alliance of American Art Museums website about the Clyfford Still Museum’s efforts to make their facility a welcoming option for bringing kids as young as toddler age.  (I think credit goes to Ruth Hartt for liking a Linkedin post) The post was written by the museum’s Director of Education and an associate curator who recount how they have approached making a modern art museum approachable for young children.

When I wrote my post on Monday about organizations focused on community engagement entering dialogue with their constituents and making changes based on the feedback they received, I wasn’t envisioning using toddlers as focus groups. But that is pretty much the approach the museum employed based on research data about children’s art preferences.

We met with our infant co-curators over Zoom and observed their teachers presenting them with two reproductions of Still’s paintings that prominently featured black, white, and red. Our pre-verbal co-curators showed us their preferences through pointing, vocalizing, grabbing, and extended looking. We tracked and tallied each of these expressions of preference, and the most popular works of art overall went on the checklist. For another gallery about pattern, we watched how three- to five-year-olds interacted with predetermined provocations (materials to spark open-ended exploration) to design an interactive experience. For that same gallery, five- and six-year-olds from a different school virtually “placed” drawings selected by three- and four-year-olds into a pattern arrangement on the gallery wall using our virtual planning software.

I actually thought it was pretty ingenious to leverage the bold colors and swaths of color often found in modern art, (and in Still’s work in particular), in a way that aligned with what appeals most strongly to infants. It sort of recognizes that when people make the dismissive statement that their kids could “draw that,” they are acknowledging that there are elements present in the work that are appealing to kids. In some respects, the kids may find the work more accessible than their parents who are seeking to discern some sort of meaning in the work.

In fact, the museum saw an opportunity to change adult perceptions about who has the ability/authority to understand modern art, by letting them experience it through the eyes of their kids:

We wanted to challenge the idea that you need specialized expertise to meaningfully engage with abstraction and expand adults’ appreciation for what young children teach us. To do this, we integrated photos and videos of our young curators from the exhibition development process in the gallery design to show their contributions and palpable interest in our collection..

…This helped children (literally) see themselves in the museum and modeled their intuitive understanding of Still’s work to adults who feel uncomfortable engaging with abstract art (If comments about megalodons and hungry scary monsters are ok, then so are my perspectives!).

The museum shared some lessons learned about making the museum more welcoming to families with infants. When your Arts Crawl literally involves crawling, some of the traditional rules about touching; the role, appearance, and demeanor of gallery attendants/security need to be changed, along with other elements of the experience and environment.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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