Colin Harrington: Kids get contemporary art

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WINDSOR — As a gallery teacher at Mass MoCA in North Adams, I give tours to people of all ages, from K-12 to college, adult public tours, and special tours for groups of all kinds. As a former high school teacher, skilled at educating kids in grades 9-12, I looked forward to giving tours and talking about art with primary school kids because I knew that at this age, kids see the world afresh and don't hold back with what they think and say about it.

They also ask a lot of questions. These are good qualities in a tour where the method is driven by inquiry and open discussion rather than straight lecture.

Tours at Mass MoCA are interactive in style. Since touring at Mass MoCA I am delighted to realize that I am pretty good at leading tours and making art with primary school kids. In fact I have been doubly delighted to find, not entirely to my surprise, that the primary school kids are some of the most expressive, astute, and sensitive observers of art of any group that comes through. The younger kids become spontaneously and completely engaged in looking at the art, talking about it, and then they are immediately ready to get involved in creating their own. Primary school kids can really teach us a lot about art appreciation.

Around 2,300 kids, PK-8th grade participate in Mass MoCA's school Partnership Program every year. This includes three visits to the museum a year, one to Kidspace, one to the main galleries, and one for a performing arts show. All 2,300 of those students receive an admission voucher to come back to MoCA with a parent or guardian for free. In addition, 80 kids participate in four weeks of art ninjas camp each summer. The museum serves 12 local schools for the Partnership Program. The list includes North Adams Public Schools, Northern Berkshire School Union schools, and some schools in Cheshire, Williamstown, and Pittsfield. This opportunity for involvement with the schools brings an important element of community with art and the museum and so the museum is closely allied with school culture and initiatives on these levels.

In such a cooperative relationship with Berkshire schools through art, music, and performance, the lifelong appreciation of art is nurtured through the many exhibitions of contemporary art displayed. These kids really get it! Kids take to contemporary art in every way it was intended and their interpretations are eye-opening.

'A BEGINNER'S MIND'

I spend a lot of time looking at all the art, reading about it, and talking about it. So it completely astounds me when a third grade student, for instance, will actually see a shape or color or connection in a work of art that is so precisely interpreted and good that the child could and should be teaching adults. A youngster can demonstrate just how to stop, take a moment to appreciate, interpret, and see great art with a "beginner's mind."

In addition, 188 schools and colleges outside of our school partnerships visited Mass MoCA last year. From those 188 schools, 4,546 students came to MoCA. Without exception, every one of these young people enter the museum with great excitement and anticipation, even when they have visited many times before. Contemporary art seems to be a touchstone for young people to connect with and understand our culture, experience new concepts of expression that celebrate form, color, language, and consciousness.

Art is the great expression of humanity's longing and awe. It has been going on for 8,000 years. It is always a joy to see how it draws, transforms, and renews the imagination and inspiration of young people. It can only be that much more fulfilling for adults, young and old, to find this experience independently and perhaps most rewardingly, through the joyful experience of the young.

Emily Ross, Museum Educator and Engagement Coordinator at Mass MoCA said, "It's so amazing to be able to see kids that I've taken on a tour bring their parents in. I sometimes imagine the persuasion and convincing the kids may have to do to get their parents on board. I'll see local students in the galleries on the weekends leading their parents around as if they're the tour guide! They're so excited to share what they learned or thought about the art with others and feel real ownership of the museum."

Please consider taking your kids to Mass MoCA sometime and experience the contemporary art installations with some real mavens. It's not only a fun place in which to wander with so much to see and do, but if you visit there with your kids, ask them what they see in the art. They will readily open up a whole new world of insight and appreciation for you.

Colin Harrington is an educator, a poet, and a book reviewer. He is an occasional contributor to The Eagle.




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