Review: Stories in Art at the NGA

Art buffs in the making

I find it downright amazing when one adult can keep a group of young children engaged and entertained for more than a few minutes.  Some people just seem to have a special charisma  that makes kids want to sit quietly and listen… and learn.  If I was trying to command an audience of about 20 four to seven-year-olds, I can guarantee complete chaos would ensue, and there would be at least one major meltdown — and it  would probably be mine.

This is reason number one why I give the Stories in Art Drop-in Program at the National Gallery of Art huge props.  From start to finish—for well over an hour—the group leader held the attention of about 20  kids as she talked about Italy, read a story about the Italian painter Giotto, discussed a famous work of his art, then led the group in an art project related to what they had just learned.  Seriously, just about all of the kids hung on her every word, were eager to chime in when she asked questions, and tackled their art projects with the zeal of an Italian chef cooking his signature pasta fagioli.

Which leads to the second reason I loved this program: interaction was encouraged.  From finding Italy on a map together to frequently discussing parts of the story to offering ideas about how the painting was made, the kids played just as big a role in the session as the group leader. And it all went down in quite the orderly fashion—they raised hands, took turns speaking, listened to their peers.  What?! As the mom of a four-year-old boy with lots of four-year-old boy friends, I’m a little more used to mini UFC matches than civilized art discussions when it comes to groups of children.  Maybe it was the art museum setting. (Note to self: start hosting play dates at the National Gallery.)

That brings me to my next reason for giving Stories in Art my personal seal of approval.  Short of going to Italy and retracing Giotto’s roots, the kids were immersed in the subject.  The session took place in a gallery that displayed the work they were studying; the group sat on the floor right below the painting they discussed, where they could see it in context as a famous work of art. And their art project took place just down the hall in an atrium area of the museum.  The kids got to create art in an art museum—that’s pretty darn inspiring, if you ask me.

If all that’s not convincing enough, here’s the kicker:  The art project directly tied in to the theme, so the kids actually got to apply their newly found art knowledge to their work.  In this particular session they learned about Giotto’s use of gold in his painting and how he carefully carved out designs in layers to maintain the integrity of the gold leaf.  To emulate the technique, the kids were given matte framed canvasses of black film over gold along with a stick to carve out their own gold designs.  Even better, everyone got to take their final works home.  Owen’s is now proudly displayed in our dining room.

Here are some things to know if you’re thinking about taking your child to the program:

– There are three sessions on each date the program runs, starting at 10:30 or 11:30, then hourly after that.  You must register beforehand for the time slot you want.  We went on the weekend around 11:45 and signed up for the 1:30, as the 12:30 was already filled.  but we used to time to enjoy lunch in the cafe and check out Allen Ginsberg’s photography exhibit “Beat Memories,” which I highly recommend, by the way (for grown-ups).

– The art and countries vary by date, so be sure to check the schedule on the NGA website to find out what’s on the agenda when you plan to go.  This weekend they are reading “Iggy Peck Architect” (one of my favorite books to read to Owen) and exploring a work by Giovanni Panini.

– Your child will receive a “passport” upon registration that gets stamped each time they participate in a session.  If they receive three stamps, they could win a prize—because a little extra incentive to keep them interested in learning about art never hurts.

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