By Elaine Liner
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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.
"We wanted kids to come to the museum comfortable with being here and what you do here," she says. "Not only kids, but I suspect most adults don't necessarily go into museums with a kind of confidence about what to do and where to go." DeLoach has primary responsibility for The Art of Looking, and her self-satisfaction shows as she guides a visitor through the software.
"We're getting to the point where it's almost done, so now we're simply fine-tuning," she says while clicking on one of the icons, an action that fails to illicit a quick response. "Over the course of working on this for four years, I find I have a whole new set of skills," she says with a laugh.
The software finally begins to work, and Art Kid speaks up, inviting the viewer to select one of several options. "We designed this CD to give an overview of the first museum visit on the computer, so that it can actually happen in the classroom," DeLoach says. "The program is an introduction to looking, giving you the skills to successfully and competently navigate a museum."
In the works for four years, the museum's new interactive, multimedia computer program will be self-published and distributed within a month, if all goes well, to local classrooms. DMA educators are also shopping a commercial publisher so copies can be distributed nationwide. The Art of Looking began as works on paper -- units of study prepared for elementary and secondary teachers by the DMA's professional education staff. In one case, a unit on art called "American Landscapes" related works from the DMA's collection to art history, observation, analysis, and interpretation of art, art criticism, and a comprehensive series of creative thinking exercises and activities.
"One of the things our department believes very strongly in is the support not only of students, but of teachers," DeLoach says. "We work to help them feel confident in using the museum as an alternate classroom." Local teachers are trained by DMA staff to use the material in the classroom, with or without a field trip to the DMA to explore the actual art. The new CD is an adjunct to this larger program.
Walsh-Piper is careful to explain that using art as a teaching tool requires more understanding and investment in groundbreaking educational ideas, such as interdisciplinary studies that incorporate art throughout the curriculum.
"You start with very simple things like observing and describing, but you get to much more complicated thought processes like inferring and deciding and interpreting when children look at art," she says. "Even young children can do this on a certain level."
Walsh-Piper believes the DMA's museum educators are bound by a professional and community commitment to support public and private schools whenever possible. The idea is to help them use art as "an integral part of learning," not just as an illustration or as a supplement. "This philosophy allows students to see the connections between life and art," she insists. "Also, more than just facts, it teaches the whole child. It teaches a child the integration of what you learn with your life, which is very important."