BRINGING ART TO LIFE
Kids are amazed by real art. Up close and personal they see details adults never notice. They ask curious questions like why the huge fiberglass Indian on a horse has only one finger. They wonder why the artist painted the coyote orange and ask how can that mud bowl be 1,000 years old?
Toddlers and grandparents, dads and daughters, siblings and aunts. They all come together at the Tucson Museum of Art to marvel at awe-inspiring treasures, then go to a color-filled creative space where they can make their own art to take home – or leave to be displayed.
It’s all part of the museum’s Family Destination Project that brings art to life for all. Many of the parents and their children who participate have never been to a museum before. “This program is so important because art in schools is vanishing,” said Morgan Wells, curator of education at the art museum. “Many of our students attend schools with no access to arts education.”
For some the impact is profound.
Lilly blossomed when she discovered art. The young girl has severe Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and struggled to find calm and focus. The engaging art-making activities at the museum sparked her passion. “Her parents loved seeing their daughter’s enthusiasm and the ways art provided her a conduit for personal expression and healing. They enrolled her in every single art camp session available at the museum,” Wells said. “Lilly is a fantastic success story. This young lady is thriving in our arts program. She’s one of our most talented and promising young artists, producing a number of beautiful and surprisingly insightful works.”
Variety Keeps Families Coming Back
The Family Destination Project was established in 2000 and has been supported with grants from the Lovell Foundation each year from 2012 through 2016, totaling $42,500. The foundation previously funded grants totaling $15,000 for arts in the schools. The program has three components – Picture This!, an interactive visit to the museum gallery; Creative Space, where children can pursue their own art interests; and take-home Activity Guides, now available in English and soon to be produced in Spanish. The free program is offered the second Sunday of every month when the museum is open at no charge to residents of Arizona and Sonora Mexico.
Every month the Picture This! theme changes to match the featured art exhibit. For a show on Southwest landscapes, plein-air artists were painting outdoors around the museum grounds. For a show called Shadow Play, families watched a shadow puppet show. When wildlife art was the focus, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum brought live animals. In the folk art gallery, participants tried on authentic ceremonial masks. Dancers and musicians also perform.
The variety of the art and engagement activities keeps many families coming back again and again. Ben is a good example. His parents work fulltime jobs with uneven schedules, so it is challenging for the family to spend quality time together. Now Picture This! Sundays are eagerly anticipated by the entire family as their special time for togetherness and memory-making, Wells said.
When Ben first came to the museum, he was shy and extremely introverted. He struggled in school. Since participating in this program, he has gained the confidence to speak up during gallery discussions, takes part in group activities and shows his art to other children. “His newfound confidence carries beyond the museum walls. His parents report that Ben made several new friends in his class, has shown interest in participating in sports and is steadily improving his grades,” Wells said. “Ben is a prime example of how interaction in the arts goes far beyond learning to paint or draw. Ben has made great strides in emotional well-being, and found an untapped talent and academic proficiency within himself.”
Art Experiences “Feed the Soul”
Parent Jen Roth Gordan said, “We are so grateful to the Tucson Museum of Art with their fabulous education programs that have introduced our children to local artists, nurtured their own inner artists, and developed their appreciation of art.”Lura Lovell was passionate about the arts and made them a key priority of the Lovell Foundation. She has said, “I think that helping children have art experiences and music experiences and theater experiences feeds the soul. I think it’s vitally important. To me, it makes perfect sense.” To date the family foundation has awarded more than $608,000 to a wide range of art projects.
Both Wells and her colleague Marianna Pegno were smitten by museums in their own childhoods. They are elated to have jobs working in the arts with children. Pegno is associate curator of education.
“I grew up in New York. I liked museums and wanted to be in them all the time,” Pegno said. “I’m hyper. I’ve got a lot of energy, always have. One of the first times I saw a piece of art that I knew – Monet’s lilies – I beelined into that gallery.” A stern security guard followed right on her heels. “That shaped how I interact with kids. I still am so excited about art.”
Wells said, “My all-time favorite is the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. That’s the one I grew up with and got me the most excited about art. Until I found art I never seemed to fit in and did not do well in school.” Yet she went on to study art history and art education at the University of Arizona, then completed a master’s in museum studies at the University of Oklahoma. She returned to Tucson in 2010 as manager of youth and family programs at the museum and was quickly promoted.
Pegno came to the art museum the same year – as an intern. “We started together and have grown together as a team,” she said. Pegno graduated from New York University and completed her master’s at the UA, where she’s now working on her doctorate.
“Art Makes You Smart”
These two are perfect examples of the power of art to change lives. They like to quote a New York Times article headlined Art Makes You Smart. The report said, “A study found that students who, by lottery, were selected to visit a new art museum on a field trip demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions. Expanding access to art, whether through programs in schools or through visits to area museums and galleries, should be a central part of any school’s curriculum.”
Yet in Tucson more than one third of schools have no arts program, Wells said. That’s one reason the museum takes art to the schools, hosts field trips to the museum and gives students passes for their entire family to visit. There are roughly 170 volunteer docents, many of them retired teachers.
“We’re providing enrichment opportunities that are appealing to multiple generations,” Wells said. “We’re all about accessibility. The Family Destination Project ensures a safe space that encourages creativity and cultural understanding, bridges generational gaps and promotes cognitive and social development in participants of all ages.”
Aside from important social and cultural benefits, “the arts are just plain fun,” Pegno said. Kids bring their imaginations and put them to use. “We ask them open ended questions like ‘what do you see?’ ‘what was the artist thinking?’ ‘does this remind you of something you saw or read?’ ‘what color do you like and why?’ We let them draw their own conclusions. Kids are creative beings and natural storytellers. They love to tell stories – and it’s great for the adults to see their eagerness.”
Wells said, “Art teaches us to think openly and that there is more than one solution for a problem. This is an opportunity to share, reflect and learn more about the world we live in. Today companies are looking for more creative-minded people, who can think more critically, who can think outside the box and ask why. Kids are always asking why. We need to encourage that.”