Williamstown — Emma Boillat has a discerning eye for art. She's not afraid to express joy and delight when she sees something she admires and she's definitely not shy about works she doesn't appreciate.
She may be touring the galleries of one of the most respected art institutions in the country, but if she doesn't like something, she's not afraid to walk — well, crawl — away.
On a recent Friday morning, 1-year-old Emma and her mother, Kelsey Boillat, joined other budding art critics and their moms during a free guided gallery talk for new parents and infants at The Clark Art Institute. Held on select Fridays, November through March, the talks, geared specifically for new parents and their little ones, are a chance for moms and dads to take a break from thinking about all things baby.
"It's an exhausting time of life," said Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, head of education at The Clark, who started the program 13 years ago, inspired by her youngest child, who was 2 at the time. "Engaging with art is aesthetic. It recharges the spirit and connects us to our own human core, human fabric of life. It is almost like a vacation."
It's true — being a new parent can be exhausting. Just ask this reporter, who made it to the gallery talk with her 6-month-old son two minutes before the 10:15 a.m. start time. It snowed that morning, and my son, David, though a Berkshire baby, has rarely experienced the white stuff falling from the sky during this unusually mild winter. He was not impressed.
I came crashing through the museum's slick, polished entrance with a sleepy baby bundled up and strapped into a stroller, while slinging a diaper bag filled all the necessary essentials — diapers, toys, blankets, and extra clothes, because my son has lately been testing the limits of those diapers — with my reporter notebook in hand. I was sweating from the effort of trying to make it all look easy.
"Welcome, can I help you?" I was greeted by a kind security guard who quickly pointed me to the waiting group of moms ready to start the gallery talk with Mary Lovvorn, the docent leading the tour that morning.
"We call this our highest touch program," Tulgan Ostheimer explained in an interview the day before our visit to The Clark. "When people come in, particularly first-time moms, they have the baby pack, have toys falling out of the bag, they have the stroller. We tend to greet them and ask how we may help them. We're happy to hold a baby for any mother who needs that. We really try to form a relationship and help parents."
Lovvorn led a caravan of strollers through the museum's galleries for a casual hour-long talk. The theme was animals in art. Stopping at a late-1600s Claude Lorrain painting, "Landscape with the Voyage of Jacob," Lovvorn pointed out the many animals depicted on the patch along the winding river.
"What animals do you see?" she asked the group.
"Hi," replied 15-month-old Charlotte, looking up from her stroller. My son smiled and let out his newest vocal creation, a forced laugh that echoed through the marble walls.
"Well, David isn't afraid to speak up," said Lovvorn with a laugh.
She then went on to explain the painting — what the animals represented, the balance of the image and asked how it made us feel. At other paintings along the talk, she explained Impressionist technique, pointing out how the black-and-white fur in Renoir's "Tama, the Japanese Dog" seemed to blur into the soft background of the painting.
At this point, I looked down and my son had lost a sock and the other was prominently hanging from his mouth — the picture of museum sophistication.
"If your baby cries within this program, nobody really cares," Tulgan Ostheimer said. "The typical visitors go gaga over seeing new babies in the museum."
Inviting new parents and babies into the museum is a small part of The Clark's overall strong family programming, according to Tulgan Ostheimer. In addition to these smaller talks, The Clark also hosts larger free family days throughout the year.
"We started with family days," she said, explaining that 20 years ago now-retired director Michael Conforti charged the education department to come up with ways to build relationships with families and the community. "After a while, it became clear it made sense not just to do great big events, but to also do other programs for other types of audiences to build relationships. We looked at the arc of families' lives and what they might want at different stages of family development."
From there, the new parent program was born.
Six-month-old Palmer is now a museum pro, this being her second time taking in the gallery talk with her mom, Trina Asplundh. Palmer had the perfect vantage of the art from her front-facing carrier, securely strapped to mom.
"It's something new to do," said Asplundh, when asked why she came. "It's a good excuse to get out of the house."
Meghan St. John was there with her 8-month-old son, Henry, who was happy to stare up at the gallery lights from his cozy spot in his stroller.
"It's a great way to see some art with Henry," she said. "I would definitely recommend this to a friend."
After the talk, parents were encouraged to walk around the museum for free and to ask any questions. Tulgan Ostheimer, who was happily on hand to help push strollers or find lost socks — a red one, in my son's case — said often parents will meet up afterward in the cafe for coffee.
"It's common for new parents to meet other new parents," she said.
There is also little pressure — no reservation is required, and if you arrive late, a staff member will escort you to wherever the group is.
"If we want parents to feel comfortable at the museum, we have to start at the beginning, make a relationship with brand new families," Tulgan Ostheimer said. "We want to help people learn the value and benefits of being in a museum and that talking about art with their children is not a whole lot different than looking at and talking about a picture book."
If you go ...
What: New parent gallery talks, best suited for parents with pre-toddlers
Where: The Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown,
When: Final talk of the season to be held 10:15 a.m., Friday, March 4
Baby gear: Strollers, front baby carriers allowed. No backpacks
Changing tables: Yes, in the women's room there is a sturdy, private changing table available
More information: Visit clarkart.edu or call 413 458 2303