November 3, 2005
Vol. 25 No. 4

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    ‘Families at the Smart’ to reap benefits of funding

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    The Smart Museum of Art has been awarded a 2005 “Museums for America” grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, the largest federal grant program for museums in the country.

    The grants were awarded to only 169 museums out of the 543 institutions that applied for the funding. The grant program supports exhibitions, digital projects, youth and senior programs, museum publications and research.

    The grant, matched one-to-one by the museum, will support its “Families at the Smart” initiative, which will broaden the museum’s family programs and expand their geographic reach to include more South Side neighborhoods.

    The Smart Museum already serves as a resource for neighboring communities through its family programs and nationally recognized public school programs. The Museums for America grant will enable the Smart to reach beyond the Hyde Park-Kenwood area and engage residents across the South Side, where children often are underserved in terms of access to the arts, arts education and family-friendly cultural venues.

    According to Christine Carrino, Public Relations and Marketing Director for the Smart Museum of Art, the goal is to create a place where students, teachers and families from across the South Side can come not only to learn about art, but also to engage with each other and members of the University community, “together sharing traditional and new art experiences in a safe, stimulating and education-oriented environment.”

    With the funding, employees at the Smart will conduct audience research to better understand the local communities, implement new family programs linked to neighborhood schools and community groups, and improve online and print materials aimed at children and their parents.

    The Smart already employs innovative ways of sharing its collection—and art in general—with neighborhood schools. Last year alone the museum served more than 3,000 students, with an additional 2,000 residents attending family programs. The majority of the families who visit the Smart and take part in its programs are from Hyde Park.

    “Smart Explorers” is among the museum’s most successful education initiatives. Targeting fourth- and fifth-graders, the 15-week Explorers program is taught both in the museum and in a classroom. The program includes five units: visual language, materials and processes, narrative in art, art in context, and a final unit where students interpret an artwork of their choice and learn to talk publicly about it.

    Through weekly classroom discussions and museum visits, art-making activities, journal writing and gallery talks led by program participants, students explore art and build their critical thinking capacities and communication skills. The program culminates with a final event in which children invite their parents and families to the museum for a tour and presentations they have prepared on their selected artworks.

    The museum also offers programming to third- and fourth-graders called “Art in Focus;” a program for sixth-graders called “Art in the Making;” and one-day tours for any school group.

    Programming is offered to families as well. On three Sundays each year, the museum is turned into a veritable wonderland of treasure hunts, performances, crafts and games, a day of activities that usually attracts a few hundred people. And every Wednesday during the summer months, the Smart offers “Art Afternoons,” which attracts nearly 100 people every week.

    The Museums for America grant will allow museum staff to make the museum more welcoming and accessible to families. Part of the money will fund surveys to find out what barriers currently keep some South Side families from visiting the museum and what sorts of programming might appeal to them. One idea being considered, Carrino said, is to create family nights for specific schools in which the museum would provide transportation for students and their parents to and from the museum.

    The interactive SmartKids Web site (http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/smartkids/) also will be expanded in an effort to attract more youth visitors. The site already has registered more than 80,000 hits.

    “Art should be accessible for everyone,” Carrino said. “With this funding we should be able to make that more of a reality locally.”