LINCOLN — A group of 4- and 5-year-old Lincoln Nursery School students sat in a semicircle on the floor of Studio Red at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum one spring Friday morning, while a woman in black-and-white striped pants and fiery orange tennis shoes read to them.
The children paid rapt attention to every word of Roald Dahl’s “The Minpins.”
The reader? No teacher, she, but artist Claire Ashley, who previously had met the children inside the main gallery building of the deCordova, explaining to them the composition of her “thing one,” a floor-to-ceiling inflatable sculpture that was being installed in an exhibit.
Moments after Ashley finished the book, the children bolted to tables scattered around the room to assemble their own foot-high versions of “thing one,” using cardboard tubes as frames.
The interaction was no random meeting of artist and children. Last September, the deCordova and Lincoln Nursery School fulfilled a partnership they had been experimenting with for nearly 2½ years, housing the nursery school at the museum. The arrangement is the first and only one of its kind in the United States, according to both the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors.
The deCordova-LNS partnership invites artists who exhibit at the museum to also work with the children, and gives the kids behind-the-scenes access that most people never get — seeing how the museum is run, and how exhibitions are installed. Further, artists who’ve been caught up in the partnership say they’re being inspired by the kids in unexpected ways.
Before the partnership, the school and museum had enjoyed an informal relationship, as LNS teachers and students used to take nature walks to the deCordova from the neighboring church basement that housed the nursery school.
LNS Director Nancy Fincke said that when the nursery school found itself in need of more room, she already had a fond place in her heart for the deCordova, “so I cold-called Dennis [Kois, director of the deCordova]. And I told him I had this little dream” — for the nursery school to find a home somewhere on the museum grounds.
After researching and testing pilot classes, that dream became a reality when LNS leased several onetime artists’ cottages at the museum as classroom space. The nursery school pays rent to the museum, but beyond that, the two operate independently.
“From the museum’s perspective, what really drove this is the frustration that the museum — that all museums, really — have felt in recent years with the erosion we’ve seen in our ability to access students in schools,” said Kois.
“When I was a kid, we took field trips to cultural institutions. We got on a bus and we went to them. For the most part, those days are over — for reasons of budget, testing, time, technology. It is a practice that just doesn’t happen as much.”
And so, Kois said, if children weren’t going to visit the deCordova more consistently, the museum would offer a group of kids a permanent home.
“It was necessary,” he said, “if we wanted to open this world to young people and teach them to make this a part of their world, and perhaps more importantly, if we wanted them to keep this a part of their world decades from now.”
Shari Tishman, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of Project Zero, an educational research group at the school, says that the deCordova-LNS partnership could become a blueprint for other museums looking for a way to create the next generation of art lovers and museum backers.
“I think what I find most exciting about what they’ve been able to do, is the web of engagement they’ve created in the preschool through art,” said Tishman. “They are learning in a living, engaging way, thanks to their use of art.”
Tishman said she was struck by artists acknowledging after the fact that they’d learned from the children different ways to think about their work.
“I also remember teachers talking about how they learned to instruct differently. And that’s happening with parents there as well. This sort of partnership requires a high degree of parent and community involvement. Curators too. Everyone wins,” she said.
Franklin Evans, a New York-based artist who exhibited at the deCordova earlier this year, says he, too, was impressed by the Lincoln Nursery School students he encountered there.
“First, I honestly didn’t know this was coming,” Evans said, chuckling. “Your work is picked up by a museum. You go there for installation and exhibition. And that’s that. I didn’t know there’d be young children at the deCordova as part of the equation.”
But Evans says, in retrospect, he didn’t need to worry. “Really, [the kids] set the tone. And that impressed me beyond belief.” And he says that some of the images and ideas the LNS kids shared with him will probably make it into his upcoming installations at Experimento 2 in Venice and at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Julie Bernson, the deCordova’s deputy director for learning and engagement, said there is sometimes a mistaken assumption that LNS children are being fed an art-based education. “The reality is, what is unique about how they learn has less to do with art than it does the approach. The approach makes this setting and this partnership ideal.”
The approach employed by Lincoln Nursery School is Reggio Emilia, a preschool and primary education learning system named for the Italian city where it was developed by educator Loris Malaguzzi in the years after World War II.
It says the best way for children to learn is through experiencing a subject by touching, listening, seeing, hearing, and moving — that children should be encouraged to explore their learning environment.
“Art as part of a preschool experience seems to open up little children’s minds, allows them to be more aware, curious, and intrigued by their surroundings,” said Tina Murdough, mother of 4-year-old Glen Murdough at Lincoln Nursery School.
Children in Glen’s class, Studio Yellow, made artworks with tape, inspired by Evans’s “paintthinks” installation.
Murdough, whose older sons Tommy and Alexander were part of pilot classes in the deCordova/LNS partnership, says that her family has been amazed at how the LNS children have grown to view the art installations as sources of inspiration for play.
“Wooden blocks or rolls of tape are suddenly more powerful than before,” she said
Back in Studio Red, one of the rooms occupied by the LNS, Ashley sat with 4-year-old Lottie Ash and watched as the girl packed gobs of cotton stuffing onto a cardboard paper towel tube. Lottie paused periodically to stare thoughtfully at her pieces. Then she nipped, tucked, and fluffed the stuff, before wrapping velum paper that she’d painted around the stuffing. It was her version of “thing one,” which had been on display in the deCordova’s “Paint Things” exhibition.
“I want it to be bigger here and smaller there,” Ash said, as Ashley nodded understandingly. “It looks better that way.”
As Ashley traveled around the room from table to table, observing different incarnations of “thing one,” she didn’t offer much advice to the kids.
“Frankly, I don’t need to,” she said. “The thing I’ve learned from getting to know these children is that once they grasp the concept for a piece, they’re not shy about taking ownership of it and adjusting it to what they think makes for good art. And that is amazing to me. I simply never would have guessed that children this age would have such a mature thought process for creating art.”
Correction: Because of reporting and editing errors, the names of Julie Bernson and Loris Malaguzzi were misspelled in an earlier version of this story. Also, the origin of the Reggio Emilia education system, which was named for the Italian city where it was developed, was misidentified.