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Art for All

Kid-friendly offerings at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Written by Jennifer Babisak. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

(Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Houston suffers from no shortage of museums, but I’ve always thought of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as the grande dame of them all. It was here that I first marveled at the splendor of European masters. As a mother, I’ve found that my appreciation for art is magnified when I experience it through the eyes of my children. So on a recent sunny day, I set out with my three young children for an afternoon at the MFAH and its companion sculpture garden to see what this Houston art institution has to offer for a family visit.

The Museum of Fine Arts, located in the Museum District, houses the largest art collection in the Southwest, with works ranging from Pre-Columbian gold to contemporary African photography. The museum’s two primary buildings straddle Main Street, and we start our visit in the Caroline Weiss Law building, one of only two museums in the world designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, an influential German-American modernist architect.

In the building’s basement, we tap a trove of family-friendly resources in the Kinder Foundation Education Center. The kids sit at a table with laminated Picasso prints, vellum paper, and colored pencils, following instructions to trace elements from each print to make their own conglomerated works. While the kids are drawing, I browse the center’s library and read aloud to them from a colorful picture book on Matisse.

'As a mother, I've found that my appreciation for art is magnified when I experience it through the eyes of my children.'

Before leaving, we check out two Family Pack activity kits with material to help the children investigate and interpret the museum’s collections. Outside the center, we relax on red couches tucked under a staircase and browse through a binder of “art detective cases” in the pack of my two older children, eight-year-old Caleb and six-year-old Madi. Two-year-old Esther’s animal-themed activity kit includes toys, a board book by children’s illustrator Eric Carle, and laminated cards showing the museum’s works featuring animals. Emblazoned on the wall, a quote from Dr. Peter Marzio—the longtime museum director who died in 2010—reveals the reasoning behind these kid-friendly offerings: “The MFAH is and always has been a Place for All People.”

After winding our way through the labyrinthine galleries—including a vibrant pink room dripping with golden Balinese crowns that Madi loved—we find the answers to the kids’ first art-detective case in the Arts of China Gallery. Here, gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s ethereal sepia-toned landscape Odyssey lines the walls of an entire room. A video demonstrates Cai drawing with gunpowder before igniting it to create the singed image. The kids gasp at the recorded pyrotechnics (who knew art could be so exciting?) and then try to interpret Odyssey’s blurred lines, identifying shadowy mountains, waterfalls, and lotus flowers.

With their detective case solved, the kids begin chanting, “Rainbow Tunnel! Rainbow Tunnel!” meaning they’re ready to take the underground passage into the Rafael Moneo-designed Audrey Jones Beck building. We cross under Main Street via the Wilson Tunnel, a work of art itself thanks to James Turrell’s neon and ambient-lit installation, The Light Inside. The glowing walls color-shift between shades of blue and crimson, providing the illusion of walking in space. The kids nervously stick toward the middle of the walkway, afraid that one step off the path will send them spiraling into a brightly lit abyss.

Inside the Beck building, we find a dizzying array of antiquities and works by European masters, which transport us from the American West—thanks to Albert Bierstadt’s Indian Spears Fishing—to Venice via Francesco Guardi’s Regatta at the Rialto Bridge. Looking at the waterlogged cityscape of the latter, which shows the Grand Canal aswarm with gondolas, Caleb puzzles, “How was a city built on water?”

Each child hones in on particular favorites. Esther shouts “Dog!” at Jacques Brascassat’s A Bull Fight, which shows bulls with horns locked while a barking dog looks on. Nurturing Madi prefers gentle paintings of women and children like Giovanni Giacometti’s Young Mother, an impressionistic rendering of a mother and nursing baby. Meanwhile, Caleb zooms in on battle scenes like Claudio Coello’s Saint Michael the Archangel, a bloody scene showing St. Michael with sword drawn over a prostrate Satan.

While we browse, the dozens of docents coo over the children and help them with their art detective cases. While the kids occasionally need reminders to refrain from running and to keep a safe distance from paintings, MFAH policy encourages them to sprawl on the floor anywhere they like to study and sketch the art.

At the Picasso Black and White temporary exhibit, which features dozens of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures, Madi recognizes a piece from her activity in the Kinder Center. “I traced that one. I did those exact same eyes because they’re kind of creepy,” she says of Picasso’s Portrait of Olga in a Fur Collar.

(Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Though we could continue browsing for hours, hunger calls, so we head across the street to the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, a tranquil acre featuring two dozen sculptures nestled between rolling hills and native trees. Spreading out a blanket, we crack open our lunch from Picnic, a gourmet bakery down the street with a tantalizing lineup of soups and sandwiches. Sitting on the slope of a hill, stately pines shading us from the midday sun, I dig into a brothy tomato basil soup, flavored with just a hint of spice, and a fluffy cheese-laden roll. Madi raves about her sandwich, “This is the best PB&J ever! The bread is so soft.”

Polishing off the last crumbs of lunch, we take in the sculptures surrounding us,  including the soft curves of a bronzed nude and a welded steel mushroom-like form that seems to grow from the earth. Near four bronze Matisse reliefs, showing the shifting form of a human backside, mothers sit at a collection of patio tables and feed their babies. On the grass surrounding a bronze rope connecting two oversized pearls, an older couple reclines together in the grass. It’s evident that Marzio’s vision lives on—this is a place for all people.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is at 1001 Bissonnet St. The Cullen Sculpture Garden is at the intersection of Bissonnet and Montrose. For more information, call 713/639-7300.

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