Exposing children to the arts- An Open Letter to Fine Art Museum Directors

On a recent trip to Florence, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a cappuccino with two American expat friends of mine. Both lead guided tours on the art and history of Florence and teach courses at the local universities. Our meeting spot, the coffee bar at the Palazzo Strozzi museum, turned out to be a popular place for the Florence museum elite. With only a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies, I felt a bit intimidated, but I never felt out of my element. After getting my cappuccino at the bar, I sat down with my friends to discuss the major players in European art history, like many Americans discuss the Kardashians.

Not being familiar with the who’s who in this art-filled city, I relied on my friends to fill me in on the important people that shared our space. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by the director of the Palazzo Strozzi Museum. He is a friendly man, slightly older than myself, with one of those smiles that makes you feel instantly at ease. My friend introduced me, and we all began to chat about the project I was working on – a family travel guide to Tuscany. I gushed about how much I love his museum, and how much admiration I have for his children’s program. The Strozzi is, indeed, my favorite museum in Florence. We discussed the importance of teaching art to children, and what an asset his museum is for families visiting Florence. At the end of the conversation, he handed me his card, asked me to send him the manuscript of my guide, and offered the possibility of writing the prologue. I was in the clouds; what a fortuitous meeting.

Soon after, the director of another museum in Florence arrived at the coffee bar. I won’t mention the museum by name, but I will say that it happens to be one of the best known in the world. The man, obviously Italian and about the age of my father, made his way to his table. He was joined by a few others, who were all carrying notebooks; it looked as if a meeting were about to take place. Never one to miss an opportunity and riding on the joy of the previous introduction, I asked my friend to introduce us. By the time we got across the bar, we entered into what had become a queue of sorts. I felt as if he was holding court – everyone wanted to speak with him.

While we were waiting, we introduced ourselves to one of the people sitting at his table. With British formality, she greeted us. I explained to her that I was writing a travel guide for families visiting Tuscany, guiding them to the best places to go. She pursed her lips, and after an extended blink, with eyebrows raised, she responded, “Yes, and where not to go.”

Did she just say what I think she said?

Moments later, it was our turn with the director. My friend introduced me, and he greeted us with slight trepidation, perhaps for taking up his time. Being that my friend is fluent in Italian, I had asked her to explain my inquiry. My Italian is getting better, but I thought I would pass on this chance to mistakenly say something, or to offend him by butchering his language. His response to her was chilly, to say the least.

He scoffed at our inquiry to know more of the opportunities for families in his museum, and directed us to contact the person in charge of such things. We walked away, more offended than embarrassed. The overall impression we gathered from the director and his minion? Children do not belong in museums. When we sat back down, I received an earful from my friends about how this has been a prevalent issue with the museum elite in Florence. I was rather surprised; I had no idea this was even an issue until today. The presence of children in museums is a divided issue, and it was quite clear who stood on which side during these encounters. On my latest visit to Florence with my children, I didn’t even bother to revisit this director’s museum because of its lack of catering to families.

I was stunned at the difference in attitudes regarding children visiting art museums. On the whole, I find the children of travelers to be quite respectful in museums. Art directors worldwide can only benefit from including families in their vision. Art enhances creativity and imagination. Art encourages cognition, critical thinking, and learning. Isn’t this what we want to bring to our children? Is this not what we expect from them as adults?

I write this letter in hope of enlightening museum directors around the world as to the importance of exposing children to the arts.

Dear Fine Art Museum Director,

For the past 2 months, I have been immersed in one of the most incredibly enriching jobs of my life. I have been teaching Italian Renaissance art history to elementary age school students in the US. Thus far, we have covered Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Raphael. Our next artist will be Lavinia Fontana. I teach the children about the techniques, the various styles, and the lives of these artists. I often speak to them in Italian, and have been more than impressed with their quick ability to grasp the language.

Learning about Michelangelo’s experience painting the Sistine Chapel was a hands-on experience. It filled me with joy to hear their gasps when I showed them images of the chapel itself. What an amazing experience for them to hear the story of how Michelangelo did not even consider himself a painter, but a sculptor, and yet he was able to produce one of the finest works of art in the world. It’s a wonderful lesson in never selling yourself short.

Here are my five year olds painting their very own “Sistine Chapel.”

Sistine Chapel Kids

I taught about the various forms of sculpture, and we looked at examples of each. The students learned of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti’s constant competing, the great success of Brunelleschi’s dome, and Ghiberti’s minor redemption with his golden doors. The children carved their own relief sculptures into a bar of soap, and created a life size sculpture by plaster casting their own bodies. While I wasn’t able to show them Michelangelo’s David because of the nudity, they swooned when they saw images of the Pieta.

Michelangelo kids

We discussed the art that came out of Venice during the Renaissance, and created our own Venetian-style art, with the sounds of Venetian composer Vivaldi filling the room.

Venice for kids Venice craft kids

The students discovered the great influence the Medicis’ love of art had during this period, studied the five balls in orle gules on the Medici shield, and created their own coats of arms. 

Coats of Arms

This term, the students are excited to continue learning about the masters and creating their own masterpieces. Our next activity will involve painting frescoes and learning about natural pigment.

At the end of the year, we hold an art showcase of the children’s art pieces. It is here where families can come to enjoy what their children have been creating. It is also here where all can practice the museum etiquette they have learned in class.

It is my belief that exposing children to the arts at an early age fosters a lifetime of respect. I only wish I could be there to see the looks on their faces when they gaze first-hand at Botticelli’s Venus rising from the sea, crane their necks to see God gracing Adam with his soul, and witness their speechlessness at the perfection of David.

I implore you to consider your programs for families as a critical element to your museum. These are the children that will be our future academics, art historians, and patrons of the arts.

Open your doors and allow them to see and to feel the beauty; create an atmosphere where they will have the opportunity to understand the art, and feel welcomed into the space. Build the pathway to their inspiration.

You may very well be touring the next Leonardo.

Mona Lisa kids

With gratitude,

Laurel Perry

Art Teacher

Academie da Vinci School of the Arts

Florida, USA

I invite you, directors, parents, educators, and patrons of the arts, to share your thoughts in the comments below.

I look forward to an open dialogue on how you feel about exposing our children to the arts and welcoming them into our museums.


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22 Responses to Exposing children to the arts- An Open Letter to Fine Art Museum Directors

  1. wanderingeducators October 30, 2013 at 1:59 PM #

    I LOVE this. Brava! It makes me smile with tears of gratitude, for every child-friendly museum we’ve visited has enriched our lives more than we can ever put into words. Our daughter is an artist, and I credit all those hours spent in art museums as an integral part of her education and her inspiration.

    I’d like to add thanks and congratulations to art museums that have vibrant and robust online offerings, too – whether for kids OR adults. One of our favorites is the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute – we love that place, and visit their website all the time.

    Yes, we’ve been to a few art museums that have discouraged kids – we’ve gotten the looks, or felt unwelcome. The thing is, our daughter is SO quiet and respectful. Carrying her sketch pad and charcoal pencils in search of inspiration should be joyful, not something to be ashamed of. We’ve noted it, and withdrawn our support.

    The best art museums have kid kits (such as at the Dayton Museum of Art), which teach, create scavenger hunts, and invite kids to explore every corner. Thank you!

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 4:55 AM #

      Jessie, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and sharing your experiences. We love the kid kits too!

  2. Alexandra October 30, 2013 at 3:00 PM #

    Jessie (above) shared this, and I have to weigh in to say that James Bradburne, the director of Palazzo Strozzi, is an anomaly in this city and this country, and that is unfortunate. Palazzo Strozzi has an excellent kids’ education program and is also opening up to mom and tot activities during the week. The state museums in Florence also have a very good, but less frequent, series of visits for children and their families, and of course Palazzo Vecchio has activities for little ones.

    Unfortunately, you fell victim to a kind of snobbism of the political classes in Italy that pervades the upper levels of everything, not just of our cultural establishments, but in the field of museums and culture, this attitude is part and parcel of what is damaging Italy.

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 4:58 AM #

      Yes, Alexandra, I agree that this sort of elitism can only further damage the future of the arts in Italy. Our children are the future protectors of these very establishments.

  3. Learning Across America October 30, 2013 at 4:11 PM #

    I had very little exposure to the arts as a child, and, as an adult, I find myself with very little interest in the arts. There, I’ve said it.
    It is an effort to teach my children about art, music, and dance, but I keep plugging away because I think it is important to them. I think we do our children a disservice when we exclude them from enrichment opportunities.

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:01 AM #

      Thank you so much for sharing this. You made my point beautifully! How do we expect our children to grow up with an appreciation for the arts when we do not nurture it in them now? Kudos to you for stepping outside of your comfort zone to teach your own children.

  4. Jenna October 30, 2013 at 7:51 PM #

    I love this. How could I not? I’m going to continue a point that Alexandra brought up. Italy suffers from the dual problem of too many tourists all in a few places and a lack of preservation of its treasures. Leaving the biggest museums to the tourists and not investing in the future generation only makes this problem worse. If the mindset (which I would imagine exists elsewhere, not just at this large state museum) would change and museums would become more active in engaging the local community (as Palazzo Strozzi does so well), then maybe Italy would care more about their treasures. I’m not saying the people don’t care because I know many of them truly do, but there is such a lack of funding, etc. despite every indication that this is not a sustainable situation for Italy. Programs that encourage engagement with the arts and include innovative ways for children to explore their artistic side and learn about the art in the museum will result in a greater feeling of having a stake in those museums. As an example, my experiences visiting grand art museums, especially in NYC as a child and later in Florence as a teenager, directly led to my interest in art history as an adult.

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:04 AM #

      Wonderful points, Jenna! You pointed out that engaging them now “will result in a greater feeling of having a stake in those museums.” Exactly! Engagement is everything for them. Your own personal experience is a perfect example.

  5. Esther October 30, 2013 at 7:59 PM #

    Saylor showed me her Hello Kitty soap. I said, “You took away everything that wasn’t Hello Kitty! Like that one guy…” And she said “You mean Michelangelo! It’s a relief!” or something like that, I’m probably screwing it up. So there. My 6-year-old knows more than me and I have you to thank for it!

    I clearly remember I was seven when I first saw Renoir’s Girl With A Watering Can at the National Gallery in D.C. Have loved impressionism ever since. Also the Smithsonian Natural History museum had a room you could sketch animals in and I actually did a decent job (not so today). Those experiences leave huge impressions. What is art for if not for the next generations to benefit from?

    Thanks for sharing your passion with our little ones!

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:06 AM #

      Thank you so much for sharing Saylor’s experience at home. Nothing fills me more than to know I have made an impact when teaching. I LOVE that you can remember seeing Renoir’s painting! What a beautiful experience.

  6. Allison November 4, 2013 at 6:58 PM #

    In an age when schools are spending minimal time and money on art, it seems that art museums should want to welcome children through their doors. Where else will children learn to appreciate the fine arts? Who will support these museums in the decades to come if today’s children are not welcome?

    I have a nine-year-old daughter who identifies herself as an artist and begged to visit a particular art museum during our recent travels. She was delighted to see original works by some of her favorite artists for the first time. I appreciated kind docents who helped me teach my children about appropriate behavior in an art museum. We also enjoyed spending time in a room filled with art supplies and art books where my children were encouraged to express their own creativity. My daughter may or may not grow up to be an artist, but nurturing her love of art now will almost ensure her patronage of the arts in the years to come, which she will then pass on to her children.

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:09 AM #

      Thank you for nurturing that in your daughter, Allison. What a gift you are offering to her. Whether or not she chooses to be directly in the art field, she will take that openness to expressing creative thinking with her forever.

  7. Alyson November 5, 2013 at 4:54 AM #

    Well I’m quite shocked and stunned by that! I’ve never really been to any major museums outside London. Museums are free there and extremely welcoming of children. I’ll make a mental note to avoid Florence.

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:15 AM #

      Alyson, please don’t feel like I was saying to avoid Florence at all! My children and I LOVE Florence. It is a beautiful city with so many wonderful things to offer families. The problem is that the main museum there is not very welcoming to families. However, I have gotten some information that tells me it could change very soon :)

  8. Heidi @WagonersAbroad November 5, 2013 at 6:01 AM #

    Well done Laurel! This is beautiful and as a mother of 2, I feel it is very important. There is so much history interlaced with art and children should be exposed to that from the get go. It should just be part of their lives. They learn respect for the arts as they would any other topic, providing their is opportunity to expose them. We tend to stick to museums with a program for children as well.

  9. Erin Bender (Travel With Bender) November 5, 2013 at 9:23 AM #

    Wow. How rude! We stayed in the most amazing hotel in Florence, which was ancient and historic and kid-friendly. We actually did not leave to discover much of Florence cause we were so welcomed and I’m glad now. My daughter is 4 and a creative genius, she loves to paint and create more then anyone I know. I have no doubt given the right encouragement she will flourish into something beautiful… Given the attitude of your gentleman she would wither and die. Beautiful article.

  10. Amy November 5, 2013 at 10:38 AM #

    What a rude guy! I think everyone should have (free) access to museums, including and perhaps especially kids. A couple of times however I’ve come across parents letting their children run riot throughout museums in London totally unsupervised, which can ruin the experience for other visitors. While I don’t blame the kids I think parents need to ensure their kids are respectful in museums, particularly in areas where quiet contemplation is encouraged (such as in the holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London – I once saw a couple of young kids running around there with toy swords screaming their heads off).

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:18 AM #

      Yes, of course there are those families that make us all look bad, unfortunately. I completely agree that all museums should be free, the high prices are so exclusionary for so many people.

  11. Emiel November 5, 2013 at 8:28 PM #

    What a wonderful post! I fully support your letter. We are both big supporters of exposing children not only to art but also to different cultures around the world. We travel to learn. And we learn to appreciate art. I can see you love your job as an art teacher so much…and I cannot wait for the book to be published. Keep on doing great things!

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:19 AM #

      Thank you, Emiel, and thank you for being some of those fantastic parents that expose their kids to the arts!

  12. Colleen Lanin November 9, 2013 at 5:31 AM #

    I am so surprised to learn this, especially since Italy is so very welcoming and accommodating to children in most circumstances. I absolutely love the Sistine Chapel picture – I wish my kids could take your class!

    • Laurel Perry December 31, 2013 at 5:20 AM #

      Thanks, Colleen. I wish all children had the chance to learn so much about the arts.

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