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How the Akron Art Museum Cultivates a New Generation of Art Lovers

creative playdate
Dominic Caruso
Akron Art Museum
Creative Playdates at the Akron Art Museum are free for museum members

Very young painters and sculptors recently filled the lobby of the Akron Art Museum with their fanciful creations.

In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports the little artists had help and encouragement from their biggest fans.

“Creative Playdates” are among the Akron Art Museum’s many programs for children and their families. These get-togethers are for babies and toddlers, and they’re free for museum members the first Thursday of every month.

Once a year they make it a tea party. “It is not just an ordinary tea party. It is a wild tea party.”

That’s the hostess, Amanda Crowe. She coordinates early childhood and family programs at the contemporary art museum.

Ties in to the museum’s art

lobby of art museum
Credit DOMINIC CARUSO / Akron Art Museum
Akron Art Museum
Creative Playdates happen every month at the Akron Art Museum.

Crowe’s connecting today’s playdate to current exhibitions at the contemporary art museum.

“Snack,” is a light-hearted, somewhat nostalgic look at food.  “Animal as Muse" presents works inspired by pets that artists have loved.

About 50 children, some as young as 19 months, are turning out little masterpieces about sweet treats and furry creatures with help from their parents and grandparents.

“They are able to enjoy making a creative mess with their children,” says Crowe, “and really exploring options and possibilities. And then once the mess is made, they can go home, and they don’t have to clean it up in their own house.”

Art materials and encouragement provided
TarynMileti’s watching her 5-year-old make a terra cotta cupcake for the tea party.

“Look at how fun this is! This is so cool. I haven’t played with clay since probably I was a little girl,” Mileti exclaims.

“Hey Mom look!” says Roman, pleased with his preliminary result. Mom has a suggestion. “OK. Did you put your bead in? Put your bead in!” 

Beads and blocks are everywhere along with fake fur, river rocks, rose petals, toy figurines, cotton batting, and lots of terra cotta modeling clay.

Credit DOMINIC CARUSO / Akron Art Museum
Akron Art Museum
Taryn Mileti says she joined the museum to take advantage of the programs for children.

Found objects incorporated
Early childhood expert Amanda Crowe is also an artist who makes collages with found objects, and she found plenty for today’s playdate.

“Hundreds of hats for our tea party, animal masks. I’ve been collecting animal masks for a few weeks now. An assortment of natural materials: dried-up seed pods; stones. Because we are pretending that we’re in a garden today.”

Stations are set up throughout the lobby for kids to paint, shape, play and pretend. “Scrumptious little activities,” says Crowe, “that might occur in a whimsical garden.” 

Thinking with their little hands
Kids construct their own garden settings with the materials provided, their parents’ guidance and their imaginations.

In most museums, its “look don’t touch,” but Crowe designed this as a tactile experience "where they can literally think with their hands.” 

The museum has another monthly program “Art Babes” for kids up to 18 months. For the “Creative Playdates," you have to be a little more grown-up,  like Avery, who’s 19 months old.

His mom, Liz Fierman-Ickes, says Avery’s ready for anything fun. “He used to do the Art Babes, but he’s

Credit DOMINIC CARUSO / Akron Art Museum
Akron Art Museum
Avery is only two but not too young to be an artist.

too big for that now because he won’t sit still.” 

Avery doesn’t have to sit when he comes here. And Mary Tschantz says her 2-year old granddaughter Violet doesn’t have to be careful as she drips paint on pine cones.

“She loves to paint and play with color. Oh, no. What happened? You got some red on your finger. Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Grandma will get a cloth to clean it up. It’s OK. It’s OK.”  

Free flow
Crowe encourages parents and grandparents to lose their inhibitions, too.

“It’s not very structured; it’s very free flow. But I find that once parents just let go, that it just happens. It just becomes a natural process of making memories while they’re here at the museum.”

Animal crackers and apple juice in tiny tea cups are set on a long table along with feathered bird masks, soft, furry cat masks, sunglasses, an assortment of hats and scattered images of works featured in the “Snack” and “Animal as Muse” shows.

green snake
Credit Simon Sparrow / Akron Art Museum
Akron Art Museum
Simon Sparrow, Untitled [Green snake] , c. 1980s, Mixed media on panel. Collection of the Akron Art Museum. Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr.

A big green snake made partly from Mardigras beads served as a source of inspiration for Amanda Crowe.

How animals and children see things
She says the artist, Simon Sparrow, has written that he believes animals have a kind of “inner eye.”

“They can see the world differently than humans. So this is an opportunity for children who are also very open-minded to think like an animal and talk through the animals.”

Alison Caplan, the museum’s director of education, says children and their families especially enjoy the “Animal as Muse” exhibition.

“We have so many prints, so many photographs that relate to animals. It was really fun to go through them and really hard to pick out which ones we wanted to focus in on in the show.” 

Paintings and photos inspire the fledgling artists
In the “Animal as Muse” gallery there’s also a giant bird’s nest sofa that kids can jump and bounce on or get cozy. The museum provides books about animals that parents can read to their kids. 

bird's nest sofa
Credit DOMINIC CARUSO / Akron Art Museum
Akron Art Museum
Kids can play in a bird's nest sofa in the Animal as Muse gallery.

Terra cotta baked goods
A three-tiered cake stand at the tea-party station looks like a sculpture in the “Snack” exhibition. It’s by one of Crowe’s favorite ceramicists, Kristin Cliffel.

“She loves to create cupcakes and sweet desserts, and so we are creating that here with our liquid watercolor.” 

Noisy and bright
Messy and noisy fun is best for art making if you ask Amanda Crowe.

“One of the great things about this 'Creative Playdate' is that it involves all of the senses. This clanging of these old-fashioned metal cookie-cutters is engaging their hearing.” 

The children are also engaged by an interactive sculpture in the museum lobby near the gift shop.They can push multi-colored, super-sized plastic tubes into a “Light Bright” display to light up their choice of color combinations.

Sharing with grandma
Two-year-old Brady brings a cobalt blue peg to his grandmother, Judy Haver.

bright light
Credit DOMINIC CARUSO / Akron Art Museum
Akron Art Museum
An interactive sculpture proves captivating to the young artists.

Haver babysits for her grandkids two days a week and never misses a museum playdate.“We’ve been coming since his sister who’s now 4 was 1.” 

"This is one of the best children’s programs, this and the library.” 

Avoiding distractions
The playdate’s almost over and her phone just rang, but one mom refuses to be interrupted.

“Hey, let me call you back, OK? I’ll call you later. Bye,” adding as she turns to her toddler, “No, don’t eat that baby.”  

Parents make sure the kids don’t eat the terra cotta cookies, and tea-party organizer Amanda Crowe makes sure there’ll be plenty of inedible mementos.

“The children take home so many wonderful little masterpieces that they make here, and it motivates them to come back."

parent and child
Credit DOMINIC CARUSO / Akron Art Museum
Akron Art Museum
Parents and grandparents seem to enjoy the event as much as the children do.

Caplan says the playdates are at least one time and place to be with the little ones with no distractions.

“And if you go home with nothing except for goopy, messy paint on your hands I think that’s great. It’s about putting down your phone and being here now with your kids.”