I have written an overview of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) building and collections here. For this post, I’d like to focus on the DMA’s education galleries, called the Center for Creative Connections (C3). The Center is very prominent in the museum, located midway down the main passageway that runs the length of the building. There is a broad entrance, preceded by a long window that allows passing visitors to peek inside. The footprint of C3 is an impressive 1,100sqm, but it still amazed me that so many activities could be accommodated in the space without feeling crowded or cramped. A guided tour…
A large bright sign welcomes visitors and describes the space as ‘an experimental learning environment [for] all ages…’ To the immediate left of the entrance is the C3 Theater, with a seating capacity of 285. I happened to be visiting during First Tuesdays, a whole morning, monthly, devoted to programming for 0-5 year olds and their carers. The theme is different each time; for September it was Space Odyssey. I visited the Theater twice to see free drop-in events. Firstly, I saw Star Warp, a Star Wars puppet show by Geppetto Marionette Theater. At the end of the performance, families were able to come up and have their photo taken with the puppeteers and their creations, or have a go manipulating the puppets. Secondly, Dallas Public Library led a 30 minute story-telling session, that was a mix of picture books and singalongs, all tying in with the outer space theme. The storyteller had an impressive tolerance for bedlam – this was an event specifically for little ones, so running around and chatting loudly were par for the course and didn’t seem to detract from the audience’s enjoyment.
When you leave the theatre, you’re facing a large comfortable room – white walls and wooden floors make it feel light and spacious but not clinical. This room has a mix of objects from the collection and three activity areas. The Drawing Spot presents an opportunity to focus on one object and use the rather fabulous drawing benches to sketch; the current object is Ivory Spirit, 1990, by David Hammons. There are also two activity tables, with new activities every month (which sounds like a lot of work for the team). One table takes inspiration from the nearby masks on display, and invites visitors to rearrange laminated details from other masks in the collection to make a new face.
The final activity table has a nifty demonstration of the printmaking technique, linking to a display of Japanese prints and tools nearby. Four small panels are fixed to the table and, with a piece of paper, visitors can take rubbings of all four – if done in the right sequence and with the right colours, it builds up to create a picture of a cactus. I liked this one so much I did it twice.
From here, another archway leads through to the largest space, which has the following activity zones:
- the Art Spot – tables offer a range of selected materials, next to objects that don’t usually make it out of the museum stores to provide inspiration. An Art Exchange wall is a space for visitors to label and display their creations and play along by ‘taking one and leaving one’;
- the Digital Spot – a long red wall mounted with screens, shows objects that have been selected by theme and displayed in rotation. Visitors can upload their own photos and add them to the display; and
- Community at Large – another means of examining a single artwork, but this time working collectively. Visitors can select a square which matches a grid reference then scale up from the inspiration artwork. Fantastically expressive, the crowd-sourced response captures a lot of the energy of the original.
Downstairs from Community at Large, and tucked away a little bit, is the Young Learners’ Gallery, for 5-8 year olds. Facing an internal courtyard, this is a lovely space and again is themed. At the moment, ‘Line’ is the point of departure and the space includes an artist commission and a peg-board wall where children can make their own responses. Building blocks covered in black lines continue the theme and the Reading Wall (which looks like a giant bug hotel) is also stocked with children’s books that riff off the ‘Line’ theme.
Returning back upstairs to the main space, to the left is a room called Arturo’s Nest, a space dedicated to 0-4s and their carers. Arturo is a macaw, based on a collection object, and the mascot for the early years’ programmes. The current theme in Arturo’s Nest is ‘Camping’ so there is a little tent and the selection of toys includes nets and animals. There is a lightbox activity which involves matching pictures of animals to pictures of their skeletons. A large window looks out onto trees and this space must be a great oasis for parents. A nice touch is Arturo’s postbox – children can write letters, asking Arturo questions, and then post them. If they include their addresses, Arturo (or perhaps one of his helpers) writes back.
But that’s not all! The remaining two spaces, the Art Studio and the Tech Lab are your traditional workshop spaces. The Art Studio is for messy materials like paints and clay; the Tech Lab is more for construction and dry materials. Both spaces were open during First Tuesdays – you could collage a rocket ship in the Art Studio or explore a range of games and toys in the Tech Lab, including kinetic sand, which I hadn’t seen before but is the most amazing material.
You would think that with all this activity the space would be loud and chaotic, but it really wasn’t. My first experience of the space was during a Bank Holiday weekend and it was rammed, but it felt creative and social, and not like I’d just wandered into the ballpit area of a local IKEA, *shudder*. It was also great to see people of all ages and all walks of life making use of C3 too. Volunteers and interns keep the spaces tidy and restock materials, as well as chatting with visitors and sharing ideas and inspiration.
Recently, the C3 team have been expanding their families offer into the other galleries outside C3. Pop-up Art Spot is a neat red trolley that is located on a different floor of the museum 1-4pm every weekend (and every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during the summer holidays). The team has developed a selection of activities, each focussing on one object. When I was visiting, the focus object was an impressive silver canopy from Indonesia and the Art Spot trolley was located immediately next to it.
The Pop-up Art Spot also has a selection of three Tote Bags that can be used with any artworks on any floor (although for ease of tracking their usage, the team asks that families stick to the same level that the Pop-up Art Spot is located on for that week). You can choose from Senses, Colour, or Family Favourites. Each Tote Bag takes into consideration different learning styles and preferred modes of engagement with art, so you can make, play, write or draw. The tasks often require family members talking together and swapping ideas, creating shared memories. Impressively, the Family Favourites Tote Bag was devised by a family who visit every single week and love the bags so much they wanted to create their own – the C3 team were open to their suggestion and made it happen.
I met with three members of the team: Jessica Fuentes, Manager of Gallery Interpretation and C3; Kerry Butcher, C3 Coordinator; and Leah Hanson, Manager of Families and Early Years’ Programmes. Their programmes attract a regular, committed audience, which requires relatively frequent changes to the activities on offer to keep visitors coming back. I found Jessica, Kerry and Leah to be incredibly dedicated, creative and inspiring museum educators. I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learnt from them, but that will have to wait for another time.
My next stop is Denver and the Museum of Contemporary Art…