My three-year-old daughter and I were recently sitting at the puzzle table of a nearby library while waiting for her story time to begin. I was making small talk with another mom sitting with her young sons, and she came to my rescue and directed me to the ABC books when I could not locate Chica Chica Boom Boom on the shelves. I explained that my daughter had listened to the book when she attended Art Stories at the Cleveland Museum of Art the day before with her nanny and was desperate to read it with me. The other mom responded with, “my kids are too young for the art museum.” I was not exactly sure how to respond because the thought of being “too young” to visit any museum had never crossed my mind.
Not Too Young
My husband and I really enjoy visiting art museums. My daughter visited her first art museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, when she was two months old. Since then, she has made a repeat trip to the Art Institute of Chicago and also visited the Cleveland Museum of Art many times as well as the Tate Modern, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in D.C. While she clearly does not remember those early trips, she gained familiarity with art museums in the process. At the age of three, my daughter now walks around the Cleveland Art Museum, holding my hand and discussing which paintings catch our attention.
My sons also enjoy art museums and can distinguish a Monet from a Van Gogh (two of my favorites). Their favorite special exhibition was Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse” in the Fall 2015 that included pieces that influenced Monet’s garden painting and reunited CMA’s Water Lilies with the other two panels of the triptych and displayed them together (no photography permitted). On our first trip, I took all three kids, aged one, five and seven, alone. We all loved it so much that we came back a few weeks later with my husband. After going to the exhibit for the second time, my five-year-old son came home, asked for paints and created his own version of water lilies.
If your children are new to visiting art museums, start with a short trip of about 45-60 minutes. We play a “game” when we enter a new gallery. I ask each kid which is their favorite piece. We then go and specifically examine each of our favorite pieces before moving on to the next room. Sometimes, we read the plaque on the wall, other times, we briefly discuss color choice or artist technique that made that piece stand out, but we try hard not to dawdle.
While there is no age that is “too young”, it is necessary to be careful when bringing a child into art galleries as some art is accessible to small hands. The stroller or front carrier is the safest place for infants or toddlers. Many art museums do not permit backpacks or back carriers because the wearer could accidentally cause damage by brushing up against the art. Older children need to have enough self-control to understand that they must stay right with an adult and not touch the art work before going into galleries. However, many art museums have interactive child-friendly exhibits like the ArtLens Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art that everyone can enjoy.
Our Favorite Art Museums
- Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the US and boasts a permanent collection of over two million works. The Met is located in on Fifth Avenue in New York City. We were a few of the Met’s over 7 million visitors in 2016 that made it second to only the Louvre in number of visitors. Our boys were especially excited to find Seurat’s final study for A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Admission to the permanent collection is free, but the suggested donation is $25 for adults.
- Art Institute of Chicago is the second largest art museum in the US with almost one million square feet of exhibition space and a permanent collection of 300,000 works. Some of its most well-known pieces include Edward Hopper‘s Nighthawks, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The Modern Wing expansion was completed in 2009 and now houses the 20th and 21st century collections. I particularly love the impressionist and post-impressionist galleries, which include Gustave Caillebotte‘s Paris Street; Rainy Day and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Children love the Thorne Miniature Room exhibit. General admission is $25 for adults, but children under age 14 are free.
- National Gallery (Washington D.C.) is the third largest art museum in the US. When we are visiting the Mall, we take a quick stop through the impressionist galleries and the outdoor sculpture garden. On our most recent visit, my husband was holding our daughter, who was then two. They stopped in front of a Degas, and she looked at the painted ballerinas and commented, “Daddy, I really like this painting” to the shock of the visitors around her who had no idea that she thought she was merely “playing” a familiar game. Admission is free.
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is the fourth largest art museum in the US and has a permanent collection of 450,000 works. I visited with my daughter in utero and particularly enjoyed their version of Monet’s Water Lilies and Chihuly’s Lime Green Icicle Tower.
- The National Gallery, London is the fourth most visited art museum in the world with over six million visitors annually. It is located in Trafalgar Square and houses a relatively small collection of about 2,300 paintings, almost all of which are on permanent display.
- Cleveland Museum of Art is the art museum we frequent most often. CMA is located in Cleveland’s University Circle area on the near east side. A massive expansion project began in 2005 and was completed at the end of 2013 increased floor space by 65% and included the glass-roofed Ames Family Atrium. It has a permanent collection of 45,000 works and significant Egyptian and Asian galleries. We always make sure to spend a few minutes sitting on the bench in front of Monet’s Water Lilies (Agapanthus) and enjoy the Armor Court. Rodin’s Thinker, which sits outside the front entrance, was partially vandalized by a bomb in 1970, and the statue’s lower legs were destroyed and have not been restored. Admission to the permanent exhibitions is free, but there are fees for special exhibits.
With some precautions and child-centric activities, art museums truly can be enjoyed by all ages. While infants and toddlers may not have specific memories of the museums they visit, those who go to art museums are more likely to grow into young children who enjoy art and visiting galleries.