Works by Degas, Renoir, and other world-renowned artists line the walls of The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown. On a normal day, quiet adult onlookers fill the galleries. But on the first Friday of every month, the scene differs entirely. That’s when a dozen or so babies enter the museum.
The Clark Art Institute hosts free New Parents Gallery Talks with the specific goal of attracting infants and their caregivers. The Clark’s Director of Education, Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, started the program 17 years ago after the birth of her third child. She wanted to give parents like herself an opportunity to engage with art in a welcoming environment — and without having to find a babysitter.
“The experience of giving birth or having a new baby in a family can be rather isolating for the primary caretaker,” Tulgan Ostheimer said. “It was an idea that could promote community for people in that situation.”
Families have been known to travel hours to participate in the events. Museum staff make a special effort to help everyone feel comfortable, taking coats at the door and otherwise extending helping hands to busy parents. As for the substance of the talks, they’re gentle enough to avoid disturbing the infants, but they’re also informative for the adults.
Most important of all, New Parents Gallery Talks aim to change the narrative around who gets to inhabit museum spaces.
“Many people say the invitation to get out of the house and do something adult prompted them to come where they may never have thought about coming to The Clark or an art museum with their baby before,” Tulgan Ostheimer said.
Growing into more museum options
Once children graduate to the toddler stage, families in Massachusetts can choose from an abundance of museum programs. The Clark, for instance, hosts a program called Start with Art where preschoolers and their caregivers can participate in hands-on activities including gallery guides, art making, and thematic talks. Tulgan Ostheimer said she recognizes many participants from the New Parents Gallery Talks when they return a year or two later for Start with Art.
The Museum of Fine Arts hosts bimonthly Playdates for toddlers. These events are designed to strengthen children’s critical thinking, fine motor and social skills while also engaging their accompanying adults.
“Families and children are a big part of our strategic plan, so it’s definitely an audience that we value,” said Abby McBride, the MFA’s manager of family programs. “In that age before they start preschool, parents are really looking for something to do, but it’s also a great time to get children used to looking at and communicating with art.”
The Institute of Contemporary Art also hosts themed Play Dates, with activities that aim to promote bonding through visual art.
“We love for the families to work together — to experience art together,” said Monica Garza, the ICA’s director of education. “A lot of our art-making is not just geared toward kids, but also the adults in their lives. These are opportunities for everyone to work together.”
At the Clark and the MFA, museum-goers even find child-friendly guides and wall texts. These give adults the opportunity to speak with kids about art, introducing them to concepts they might not encounter outside the museum setting.
“I think a lot people like the idea of coming to an art museum with their kids, but then they get there and they’re like ‘what do I do?,’ ” Tulgan Ostheimer said. “These guides are intended to help parents look with their children and have open-ended conversations.”
New Parents Gallery Talks: At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown. Jan. 3, Feb. 7, and March 6. www.clarkart.edu
Start with Art: At the Clark Art Institute. Jan. 12, Feb. 9, and March 9. www.clarkart.edu
Playdates: At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. First Monday and third Saturday of the month. mfa.org
Play Dates: At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston. Jan. 25, Feb. 29, March 29. icaboston.org