he Cincinnati Art Museum’s most recent renovation, the Rosenthal Education Center, built just to the left of the Great Hall, is bright, open and cheerful. “Color” is the theme of the 2,300-square-foot space’s first installation (there will be three rotating installations a year) engaging “children of all ages” in the CAM’s permanent collection with hands-on multisensory experiences exploring different subjects — in this case, color.
The REC replaces the previous family-dedicated area at CAM’s ArtWorld, which was an art-making space for families and kids that was only open regularly on weekends. ArtWorld closed more than a year and a half ago in anticipation of the move to a new space, and Emily Holtrop, director of learning and interpretation at the CAM, says the organization recognized they would need a full-time staff member onsite if the gallery were to be open six hours a day, six days a week.
“We do a lot of weekends and nights,” Holtrop says. “That’s when a majority of the programming happens, and that’s just what happens with museum education. It will never be a 9-to-5 job.”
Chelsea Baker, the new coordinator for the REC, doesn’t skip a beat in adding, “And it would be boring if it was!”
“That’s when you see the most action,” she says, referring to the many busy weekends she has ahead of her.
Holtrop oversees Baker — a graduate of University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning with a degree in 2D painting and drawing — and the REC as part of her 9-member team, whom she empowers to design and run their own programs from conception to completion. “If you dream it up, you get to do it,” Holtrop says of her communal approach.
Baker only started at the CAM in May 2014, leading Family Art Venture programs over much of the past spring and summer.When that short-term position finished last August, Baker switched temporarily to Visitor Services because they wanted to keep her around, Holtrop says.
So Baker began her new position at the REC in January of this year and the center officially opened to much anticipation this past March with a ribbon cutting ceremony.
“It is a new, improved, supersized version of ArtWorld 2.0,” Holtrop says. “We learned lots of things with ArtWorld — what worked, what didn’t work — and we’ve applied it to this space.”
The target age for REC visitors is 3 to 12 years old, but younger children are welcome, Baker says. Beyond that range, the museum regularly provides Baby Tours on Friday afternoons for parents with children ages 2 and younger, and they’ve already had a considerable number of teens and curious adults visiting the REC, especially over the recent spring break holidays.
Activities encourage engagement with the CAM’s collection at many levels of comprehension but emphasize adult involvement throughout. This isn’t a place for adults to leave their children while they go see what the museum has to offer. The idea is for families to learn together.
“We have a lot of grandmas and grandpas that took the Saturday art classes here when they were kids, and they have expectations that that’s what we’re going to be doing here,” Holtrop says. “We’re not going to be doing Saturday morning drawing classes that you can drop your kids off at. There’s value in those programs, but it’s just not what we’re going to do.”
The REC’s established goal is “Shaping Future Artists.” But as most good educators know, adult presence and support is crucial in any child’s future success.
Thus, Holtrop and her staff worked together to come up with ways to engage both kids and adults in learning and exploring art. The room features many hands-on activities; it’s a welcome respite for families with children so used to being told not to touch things in the larger museum.
There are art-making takeaways like a sun catcher and a kinetic color wheel spinner toy to get people involved. And a popular game of “Art Twist” based on the game Twister that uses Joan Miro’s “Mural for the Terrace Plaza Hotel” (1947) as a way to get visitors physically involved in color identification.
The REC currently features an oversized rainbow loom with bright colored ribbons to give people of all ages the chance to experiment with complementary and analogous colors.
There is a reading nook with benches and carpet squares; “Color Sleuther,” a series of fun facts about color scattered around the space and only visible when seen through red-colored glasses; as well as dry-erase walls throughout the center on which visitors are encouraged to draw.
Ponder just for a moment what a radical thing it is to be allowed (or even encouraged) to draw on the walls of an art institution. It takes a brave organization to invite that kind of potentially damaging engagement, but the staff of the REC seems more than up to the task.
When kids rush toward the four iPad minis bolted to the central desk where Baker sits, she often cajoles them into an art making activity instead. “Even if the apps are educational, you don’t want a kid just sitting there glued to it the whole time,” she says.
Just like ArtWorld, the REC will also be a lesson for the organization in how to involve their audience — if they are conscientious about getting it right.
“We’re the Division of Learning and Interpretation, but we learn as much from our visitors as they learn from us,” Holtrop says. “We have a huge collection to play with, which is just a dream for educators.
“Our hope is that through people becoming comfortable with this space, they become comfortable with the rest of the museum; they understand that this is the community’s art museum and that we are doing absolutely everything we can do to make sure that all members of the community feel welcome, which also means kids.”
The ROSENTHAL EDUCATION CENTER at the Cincinnati Art Museum is free and open to the public 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org/education-center.