Approaching Arts & Culture Experience With The Wonder Of A Child

The NEA’s Arts Works blog had a post, Five Questions We Have about Visiting Art Museums, which I thought had some pretty good tips for interacting with art. The post was specifically aimed at families attending museums together and offered this bit of insight.

Of course, kids might not see things exactly the same way adults do. What do you do if your little one looks at a portrait of George Washington, for example, and says our first president’s a ballerina? Evans says that’s just fine! “In terms of their experience with the portrait, that’s still very relevant and very accurate. You can ask them what they see that makes them think of a ballerina. Maybe it’s because he’s standing with his feet in a certain position or he has his hand out. That’s still their engagement with it to notice his pose,” she said.

In some cases, this is the type of question anyone might have upon first encountering an unfamiliar mode of expression. People tend to initially process a new experience in the context of something familiar.

But it also might be the case that the simpler interpretation might be more enjoyable. Hat tip to Ceci Dadisman who retweeted this:

I also enjoyed the following advice in answer to the question, “What’s the most important thing I should know about looking at art?

Borrowing an idea from social media, Moss suggested asking yourself (or your kids), “What is the picture, if you could post one thing, that you would want to show of your experience?” She added, “Maybe that will get you thinking, ‘Oh, I need to be thoughtful about what I’m seeing and really zoom in on the object that’s really speaking to me,’ and also really thinking about why.”

Moss also added that she wants museum visitors to, “own the experience. Don’t feel intimidated. Don’t feel like you’re not smart if you don’t like something. Bring your experiences to bear on what you see and have fun and walk away with something new in your mind.”

Again, the suggestion frames the way people can approach the museum experience in a familiar context.

Essentially, the suggestions are giving parents permission to view art through the eyes of their children but pretty much anyone should feel like they have permission to approach art in that manner regardless of whether they have children.

In some ways this reminds me of a piece I wrote a piece on being as patient with yourself as you are with a baby, inspired by Stephen McCraine’s webcomic Be Friend with Failure where he specifically draws a connection between appreciation of great art and the fact you wouldn’t criticize a baby learning to speak in the same way you criticize yourself for not quickly absorbing a new skill.  Everyone needs permission both from themselves and others to acquire skills, perception, etc required for a new experience.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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