At Boston's MFA, If You Can't Bring The Kid To The Museum...

While museums enjoy great goodwill in today's world, they also face huge struggles. Why travel to a museum when you can see pretty much every piece of art somewhere online?
And how do you keep museums from being elitist, country club-type institutions, unavailable to people without the traditional means or education of middle class or wealthy museum goers?
The Museum of Fine Arts has long grappled with these questions, and is fortunate to find the support of the Linde Family Foundation, which has helped immensely with bringing art to young people in the Boston area.
As a result, the MFA has been able to do something that few museums around the country have managed--to keep an ongoing, consistent commitment to young people in low-income communities, and connect them to art in general and the MFA in particular.
Their vision was for the kids to work with an artist each year, and for the collaborative work they produced to be shown at the MFA. That happens every year--with a big opening honoring the young artists--but there's much more than that.
The MFA stations liaisons who work for the museum in ten low-income communities throughout the Boston area. Each of the liaisons provides 200 to 250 hours' worth of teaching time in those communities, primarily through Boys and Girls Clubs. They lead trips to the MFA, lead projects at the clubhouses; and attend festivals and parents' nights.
Rob Worstell, the Linde Family Head of Community and Studio Arts, runs the program that keeps MFA liaisons in the neighborhoods, year after year after year.
"These art teachers become the face of the museum," Worstell says. "They help break down some of that intimidation factor people feel about museums. That it's just a big cocktail party--or just for people who know all about art."
Worstell says that often foundations or donors will make a grant that lasts for a couple of years, but doesn't allow museums to sustain programs over the long haul. Thanks to the generosity of Joyce Linde, Worstell says, the MFA's community arts program is funded in perpetuity.
"We don't want to be a warehouse or a palace," Worstell says. "We want to be a useful tool for our communities, both near and far. That's the battle for museums in the twenty-first century. You can see an object online, but we want you to come in and see the real thing. We want to offer hands-on studio classes and we want to do this work in the community because we want the museum to be relevant.
"We want to have the kids who come through the Boys and Girls Clubs become adults who want to come to museums and then bring their kids.."
Worstell says that the museum used to distribute free tickets at Children's Hospital and Mass General, "but none of the parents were coming, because obviously they're way too stressed and they didn't feel comfortable leaving those environments--even though Children's Hospital is practically around the corner."
Worstell says that when the MFA sent teachers with iPads into the hospitals and did lessons for the patients, either bedside or in groups, the results were entirely different. The Museum became familiar. Now parents are coming and bringing their children.
"It's not easy," Worstell says, about finding the right donors to support community initiatives.
"More often, a corporation or governmental agency will give you a grant for two or three years," he says. "But that's about the time it takes to get things rolling. And if you don't get the grant again, everything comes to a screeching halt. Thanks to our donors, we're able to remain in the Boys and Girls Clubs year after year. We can work with one sibling and then the next sibling, and then it could be their kids later on, because of the endowment."
"The case for museums," Worstell says, is that you can look at things that are thousands of years old. You can travel around the world and across time, as you go from gallery to gallery.
That can be really special for anyone, not just a kid.
"Yes, you can do a lot of these things on the internet, but there's something special about being in a room with a real object right in front of you that has a sense of history.
"Thanks to our community initiative, we're able to offer that experience to all of Boston, not just the folks who would typically be attracted to a museum. And we think that's pretty special."