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Kids Count in Kohl's Education Center

Getting hands-on at Milwaukee Art Museum

May. 1, 2012
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When architect David Kahler designed the building bearing his name, the year was 1975, and the four levels in the Milwaukee Art Museum were home to more than 40 collection galleries. Back then I worked as a volunteer in a gallery devoted exclusively to art from Wisconsin. That space currently houses the “Lab” portion of Kohl's Education Center, the first of three areas devoted to giving kids hands-on art experiences in the house that Kahler built.

Josh Cantania, an 11-year-old from Waukesha, has arrived with his grandmother, mom and Nicholas, his younger brother. This is their third trip to the museum, and Josh heads for a selection of repro works from the permanent collection, the idea being that he'll get a taste of which frame looks best with which artwork. For example, should he select a wildly ornate frame to showcase a delicate etching by Goya, the frame will do a “talk-back” to tell him why his choice is either right or, ah, perhaps not right. The lab bustles with grandparents and grandkids, and most of the caretakers bite their tongues to keep from asserting adult opinions. As a former art teacher I can tell you nothing kills a kid's creativity more than adult suggestions. A white mock-up of the various galleries allows young people (and possible future curators) the option of moving walls and arranging art, and, wow, there's an area for exploring how works of art are cleaned and preserved.

My next stop is across the Main Level hall into what was formerly a center for design and is now the Studio. Kid-friendly furniture in Crayola colors suggests the funky fun of mid-century modern. Placed about the room are tables for transforming ideas into something very personal, and each young artist-in-training wears a bibbed red apron emblazoned with “Kohl's,” which provided the money and wisely let the art museum do the rest.

Upstairs, on the Mezzanine, is the third and final stop: the Gallery. It's open during museum hours (www.mam.org) and is where older kids head to sketch, view movies about animation and wonder over how Disney developed Sleeping Beauty. I chuckled when I passed a section where kids could sit and watch a talking-head segment called “Meet the Artist.” No one was watching; instead, the youngsters in that room were busy doing instead of watching. On May 20, Kohl's Art Generation presents a Family Sunday themed around water, earth and sky. From 10 a.m.-4 p.m., it all converges in a perfect landscape on a perfect lake, hopefully under a perfectly blue sky.


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