By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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At first, there's something strangely familiar about Dallas Museum of Art's new "Art Kid," a savvy cartoon boy/girl who introduces school-age children to the wonders of exploring an art museum. Then it hits you: It's Pat, Julia Sweeney's androgynous Saturday Night Live character who could never be trapped into revealing his/her true gender and was equally creepy to and disliked by all who knew him/her...OK, it. The same might be said of the gender-ambiguous Art Kid, a likable, pint-sized docent who lives on the DMA's new interactive, self-published software, which will shortly be made available to local schools. Either that, or Art Kid's Lola -- is he a she, or is she a he?
Museum educators, or course, kept Art Kid's gender vague on purpose, hoping to make him/her easy for all kids to relate to. When Art Kid talks, he/she sounds more like a boy, but his/her formless clothes, hair, and perky beret look like an adolescent girl's misguided fashion statement. (L-O-L-A, Lola!)
Art Kid pops in and out of the computer screen as CD users point and click to explore eight pieces in the DMA's permanent collection. Art Kid puts itself into certain paintings, such as Frederic Edwin Church's "The Icebergs" (1861) and the ancient Maya "Eccentric Flint" (AD 600-900), pointing out details any school-age viewer might not discover without expert help. The viewer controls the action by clicking icons that relate to possible areas of interest -- binoculars for close-ups, flashlights for further prowling, question marks for creative dialogue on art, exclamation points for "Wow!" factoids.
Art Kid even offers a backpack to store icons to come back to, if the viewer is younger or has a short attention span. The quality of the software is excellent, and the content measures up to the DMA's extensive commitment to outreach and education. DMA staff did all the work in-house, outsourcing only the graphic design.
The Art of Looking CD-ROM featuring Art Kid is the latest component of the DMA's ambitious and slightly wacky range of school programs and gallery-interpretation services for local school districts and families. The museum boasts, after all, the "Go van Gogh," a wildly painted van that takes slide shows and materials on the road to North Texas schools and interested community groups. It recently opened an art-museum-meets-Discovery-Zone play-and-learn area called Gateway Gallery. Museum docents are available for stories, music, and hands-on art activities in the Gateway Gallery, and families and young children can access interactive software or play in the toy pit on their own.
Museums are increasingly pressured to attract newer and younger patrons by any means necessary. It's particularly tough on the encyclopedic Dallas Museum of Art, having to be all things to all people as the city's largest and most comprehensive storehouse of art and art professionals. Last year, 51,818 students visited the museum, while museum educators conducted credit courses and workshops for more than 2,700 area teachers. More than 20,000 annually attend the family workshops and special events, and the Go van Gogh reached 25,000 potential art appreciators last year.
Kathy Walsh-Piper directs all public programs at the DMA and brings experience as both a classroom teacher and a museum educator to her job. She received the first national Museum Educator of the Year award in 1984 and worked at the St. Louis Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., before settling in Dallas. Walsh-Piper says educational programming is any museum's essential mission. She bristles at the idea that museums offer such services simply to sustain a base of financial support.
"I don't believe at all that we're educating people so they'll be art supporters or support art museums," Walsh-Piper says. "We're educating people because it's an important part of their lives and a valuable part. And if they never give a cent to the art museum but come to everything free, that's what art museums are about."
Local foundations and corporations support the Dallas Museum of Art and are particularly interested in funding educational and outreach efforts. The DMA's new Gateway Gallery benefited from a $50,000 grant from Dallas-based Blockbuster, Inc., the parent company of Blockbuster Video stores. 7-Eleven is another sponsor, as are Centex Corporation, Junior League of Dallas, Fina Foundation, The Hillcrest Foundation, and Union Pacific Foundation. Walsh-Piper says educational programming has easily documented benefits that make it a likely beneficiary of community support at all levels.
"Real studies show -- and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out -- that looking at art and museum visits increase vocabulary, for sure, and reading skills in children," she says. "Think of it -- it's the verbalization of the visual. That's what language is, verbalization of things that aren't verbal. Art has a lot of content in it, and pictures are part of learning. I just think it's so natural. Whether it's in an art museum or on a computer or in a book, images are important because they're the images of mankind over the years."
Gail C. Davitt heads up the DMA's school programs and gallery interpretation and works with Dana Engstrom DeLoach, who coordinates special projects in Davitt's department. Davitt says The Art of Looking's goal was to be a kind of introduction to the potential, first-time, school-age museum visitor.