Touch art: the BMA’s new hands-on approach

In a community with such polarized demographics, how does the Baltimore Museum of Art appeal to the average working-class citizen?

With the opening of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Warhol: The Last Decade exhibit on October 17 came a cavalcade of Warhol-related events and evenings geared to incite the citizens of Baltimore to pass through the museum’s hallowed halls in search of culture and beauty. Warhol doppelgangers roam the galleries, kicking up a cloud of celebrity and, in effect, transferring the focus of the museum visit from the art on the walls to the viewers themselves.

The BMA has joined the ranks of modern museums worldwide in a new, renewed dedication to the visitor as perhaps the most important moving fixture of the institution. While in days of yore, the art, the object, the artifact occupied the most important post in the museum, more recently, the departments of Education and Programming have had more prominent roles in directing the funding and focus of the museum.

I had the chance to sit down with the BMA Manager of Family Learning Lauren Haney to discuss how the museum can encourage visitorship in the uniquely striated Baltimore community.

“The idea, and my role here, is to really promote family learning and intergenerational learning at the museum. So, that includes kids, parents grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody. Really encouraging a dialogue between each other, but using art as the vehicle for that discussion,” she says. “And, for us to find connections between our lives and our human experience through the stories that art tells.”

During her yearlong reign as Manager of Family Learning, Haney has developed countless family-oriented programs, days and festivals, all designed to invite youngsters and their parents and grandparents into the museum for a more directed session of museum learning.

Free Family Sundays invite mom, dad and the kids to interact with the art in a non-traditional, activity-based manner. For the Warhol show, Haney and her team planned workshops where kids can identify the brands they find in grocery stores and in their homes, bringing details of their personal lives into the museum and learning how to screen print them, mimicking Warhol in the technique for which he is most known.

Haney’s job in particular reflects a growing desire to be able to express the values of an exhibition through a thought-provoking programming season, which can be a challenge, especially for the kids.

“You want to make sure that the shows are accessible,” she says. “While some of the concepts and themes are abstract, there’s still fun in the techniques of how the art was made.” For the Warhol exhibition in particular, “it’s an opportunity to talk about screen printing, for example.”

Free Family Sundays, therefore, become an opportunity for kids to make their own versions of the Campbell soup cans and the Brillo boxes. “We’re going to make our own brands,” she says.

These kinds of creative processes help to unveil the art in the museum in a more meaningful light, but they also serve as motives for families to consider the museum as a viable entertainment option on a given weekend.

One of the biggest demographic issues the BMA faces is giving members of a lower socioeconomic status reasons to enter the museum. Haney and her Family Programming team want to push the message that the museum is not just a building filled with “rich people’s art on the wall.” Furthermore, it’s not just a place where certain races or creeds can find meaning.

Baltimore’s vibrant African American community therefore poses a welcome challenge to programming at the museum. “Close Encounters,” a recent development along that vein, invites 4th grade students in Baltimore City public schools to the BMA for two guided visits, followed by additional sessions in their home classrooms, in which representatives from the BMA work onsite with the kids to solidify what they learned in the museum. Haney is always looking to forge new pathways into the school system, reaching out to teachers and PTAs, asking what the museum can do to be more relevant to children’s lives.

Another program on the horizon for the museum is “Neighborhood Days,” in which the museum plans to reach out to five different schools in various neighborhoods and bring the art to them, rather than waiting for the school buses to start rolling in.  Hands-on art-making, family guides and tours, and shuttles to and from the museum are all on the docket. Mostly, however, the desire is to permeate the feeling that the museum wants them to become a part of greater Baltimore culture, inviting folks to take pride in the city in which they live and play an integral part.

“It’s key to be able to show the museum at its noisiest, to show that it is living and has life. That’s when people feel most welcome,” Haney says. But further, she recognizes that people sometimes have trouble initiating a relationship with the museum. She says wants to create programming that communicates: “We want you to come!”

While the programming and education departments have little to do with the planning of exhibitions, there is a museum-wide awareness and desire to pull from the uniqueness of the Baltimore community.

“There’s all kinds of inspiration happening in the city,” Haney says, “and Doreen Bolger, Director of the BMA, is at every opening and every event, taking it all in.”

Another programming package on deck is a new Family Fun Stop, which will involve a costume pack filled with garments inspired by art in the collections of the BMA. Haney and others are currently collaborating with local clothing designers like Jill Andrews in Hampden, as well as costume designers from Baltimore’s Center Stage to create actual costumes for kids to try on, creating new avenues by which to enter the art in a completely new and visceral way.

How does an institution – a museum in particular – remain relevant to its city? Furthermore, how can it actually draw from the uniqueness of the city itself for inspiration and resource? The BMA is full of ideas. Haney, in particular, may have benefited from her exposure to the young ones of Baltimore. After all, in her words and with a smile that reveals the delight she takes in her trade, “My job is to think like a kid most of the day.”

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