If the thought of your kid's sticky hands meeting the newest masterpiece at the Baltimore Museum of Art does not bring to mind weekend fun, think again. It may be time to make the arts a family priority, because Baltimore's finest venues for music and art are making children a priority.
Perhaps they aren't making children so comfortable that your kid will actually touch a painting, but close enough to it. Formerly stuffy fine-arts palaces, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, are trying to make themselves more hip to the hottest trend in museums: interactivity. So instead of just looking at the painting on the wall, you and your child are encouraged to draw it or touch a canvas like it.
So far, the museums are succeeding. Many of their family and children's programs are sellout successes, especially among the preschool set. The Walters Art Gallery has doubled its tour-and-crafts class sizes for kids under age 5. Inside Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, it's standing-room-only at some "Tiny Tots" concerts. And families fill the galleries at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Free Admission Thursdays, while the museum has added its first-ever Kids Room for its "Celebrating Calder" exhibit.
By making the finer arts fun, free or cheap, and even touchable, many of the venues in town offer much to lure your family into museums and theaters. But if you've never considered taking your kids to experience the arts, here are some tips on getting there and enjoying it.
Think about your child's age. While almost any age will enjoy an afternoon at an arts museum, other activities are more suited for older children. For plays and regular symphony performances, wait until your children are in their teens before buying them a ticket.
Keep your expectations low. If your kid just likes to hear the echo of his voice in the cavernous halls of the BMA, so be it. But 'D maybe he'll also register the beauty and complexity of a Matisse as his echo rings.
Make a visit to the art museum a treasure hunt. Go to the museum's gift shop first, pick up postcards, and then go find the actual piece of art depicted on the postcard. Or hunt for an object: See how many swords you can find in one gallery.
Look at paintings that tell a story. At the Walters Art Gallery, there are paintings of Noah's Ark and one of a man overboard about to be eaten by a shark.
Don't book for more than an hour. The worst thing you can do to kids is make them wait, so make the museum trip as brief as possible.
Try holiday concerts. As a way of introducing your child to classical music, try some of the many holiday concerts offered by chamber groups and vocal arts groups. They are often free of charge. Or attend a free performance by a local school group or at the Peabody.
Talk about it. Before going to the theater, have your kid read the play or discuss the plot. For concerts, play the music many times beforehand and make a game of identifying the instruments used.
Go during family days, when there are lots of age-appropriate activities that make the art more interactive or the music more recognizable.
Get interactive. Pack a drawing pad and crayons or lumps of clay and ask your children to be inspired to create or replicate some of the art around them. When going to a musical or theater performance, bring a pair of binoculars and identify each of the instruments or actors.
Be aware of age. If you have very young kids, stick to child-friendly sections, such as the BMA's outdoor sculpture garden, where they are encouraged to climb on the works of art.
Most important, just go!
In this age, when everything scientific is emphasized in schools and society, exposing your kids to fine arts is an essential part of your child's education. Your kid probably won't get too much of it in schools, so it's up to parents.
"You must expose your kids to a variety of learning: science, math and, of course, art . . . that's how they learn what they really want to do in life," says Bridgid Globensky, of the education office at the BMA. "Besides, the museum is always a great family outing."
This kind of outing can also encourage conversation between teens and their parents. Center Stage offers half-price tickets for the children of parent subscribers as an incentive.
"Since the heart of theater is conversation, there's always something to talk about afterward with your kids," says Denise A. Gantt, who runs the Theater for a New Generation project at Center Stage. "Plays always ask the great questions of life, and about the time they reach high school, that's of great interest to your children -- 'Who am I?' 'What kind of mark will I make in life?' -- all those existential questions, and then conversation, are inspired by going to a play."
Amid today's loud and colorful children's entertainment, turning the volume down a notch to enter the quiet rooms of an art museum or a hushed concert hall is a challenge for many parents. Many arts institutions are aware of what parents face, and in their efforts to make their prime audience -- kids -- comfortable, they are making parents feel at home, too. They, like parents, are recognizing that if you don't get children interested when they're young, they may never be interested in some of humanity's greatest achievements.
With all the new programs offered to make the fine arts fun, your child may acquire an early appreciation for them. And maybe you will, too.