Kidspace offers something tangible

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Some may find contemporary art hard to grasp, but the gallery known as Kidspace at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is the place where visitors will always find something tangible.

Kidspace, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in January, was created for the community by three community institutions: Mass MoCA, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and the Williams College Museum of Art.

"We all thought we needed to do some kind of outreach with local schools," said Laura Thompson, the director of exhibitions and education for Kidspace. "Art is a language kids need to be involved in and learning."

Through this three-institute consortium, Kidspace was born in January 2000 as a professional place where art, education and young people directly and simultaneously interact.

Though it is based in the Mass MoCA museum, Kidspace is — and always has been — free and open to the public. It is largely grant funded.

Up until this March, the 2,400-square-foot studio gallery was located on the museum's third-floor, where the layout was somewhat disrupted by an office space planted in the middle.

Kidspace now resides on the second floor, near an entrance to Mass MoCA's current main exhibit of Sol LeWitt works. It picked up nearly 1,500 in square footage in the move, allowing more room to explore and create.

"It is so kid-friendly, and it is an inviting place," said Marie McCarron, a fourth-grade teacher at Brayton Elementary School, who has been taking her students to the gallery for nine years.

Brayton Elementary was Kidspace's first educational partner. But now it regularly interacts with every elementary schoolchild and teacher in North Adams, Clarksburg, Florida, and Savoy.

Kidspace programming includes both on-site and off-campus activities, and is geared toward youths who have had little exposure to the arts and to schools eager to incorporate arts-based learning into their curriculum but lack the resources to do so.

"We constantly work on changing the programs to meet their needs," said Cynthia Way, the director of Kidspace as well the education department for the Williams College Museum of Art.

Thompson and Kidspace education coordinator Shannon Toye, as well as other members of the three-museum consortium, work directly with teachers to design activities that tie in with classroom lessons.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for children in the area. It's a wonderful opportunity for me," said Lee Leonesio, a kindergarten teacher at Brayton Elementary. She said she can "pre-teach" an art lesson in class, in order to provide the context for an exhibit they'll visit at Kidspace.

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"Here, we're honoring (the students') creative process. There's no judgement attached, no grade," said Toye.

Since it first opened, Kidspace has mounted 17 major thematic exhibitions, and more than 13,000 students and general public visitors participate annually.

The gallery works with professional artists and installs two major exhibits on-site each year.

Boston-based artist Linda Price-Sneddon was an artist-in-residence from fall 2004 through winter 2005. Her exhibition was called "Wonder Worlds: Observations in Pipe Cleaners and Pom-Poms."

"There are precious few programs that provide the level of support for professional artists to work with such a large population of children," Price-Sneddon said.

Kidspace fully sponsors its artists and provides the guidance that brings them out of the gallery and into the classroom.

"I worked with 1,462 children over the course of six months," said Price-Sneddon. "Hopefully, what (the program) does is open an window into a world that can expand their experience. That in itself is a powerful knowledge."

Minjee Pae, an eighth-grader at Conte Middle School, is one of those students who remembers seeing Price-Sneddon's exhibit as a child. Now, she is one of 12 girls participating in a new signature Kidspace program known as "The Mona Lisa Project."

The afterschool program combines the experience of art, yoga and general discussion to help older girls feel empowered. The program evolved from an afterschool mentoring program offered last year.

"It's just great. I think it's really incredible for girls like us at a young age to experience," said Pae.

"It relieves you outside of school. I think it opens everyone up. We give each other our opinions and talk about everything with each other," she said.

McCarron, the Brayton Elementary teacher, said that phenomenon is occurring in students at every age who interact with Kidspace.

"When the kids go in, they're not just standing and listening to a lecture. They're a part of the whole thing. I hope it stays for a long time."


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