With all the visual arts experiences at our fingertips in the Washington, D.C., metro area, it's easy-but a shame-to forget that there are many wonderful ones just a hop to the north as well. Check out these child-friendly attractions on a day trip, a weekend or a vacation that goes beyond the Inner Harbor.
Guess what, kids-you don't have to be a trained artist to create art! My hands-down favorite museum in Baltimore is the American Visionary Art Museum. A showcase for "outsider art," it presents themed exhibits that last for a year. The current exhibit,"The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor & Truth," will run through September 1, 2013 and holds the promise of a special arts experience for the whole family.
More than 30 artists will be represented with the museum's usual dazzling curation-story quilts of South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation program, film, graffiti from round the world, an Apache woman elder's tribal legends painted with heavy metals and prayer beads, 20 painted self-portrait stories by rescued Cambodian children, dioramas, fairy tree houses and more.
What's Up at the Walters
The Walters Art Museum works hard to integrate children into the fabric of the museum. My favorite of their offerings are the terrific Family Guides to categories of art in the museum. An affable Egyptian lion cub mascot named Waltee gets kids started with each pack of oversized cards, which explore specific works in the collection. The back of each card gives a Look, Imagine and Discover suggestion to go with that work. A clever Collection Connection at the bottom of each card helps kids find connections between different periods and types of art.
The Walters has Walk, Wonder & Create Tours of interactive gallery adventures every third Saturday at 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. for ages 6-8 (November's is "What to Wear?") and ArtCarts and Drop-In Activities every Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. for all ages. November's Drop-In Activities are "Heavy Metal" themed: the family can visit the special exhibition, "Diadem & Dagger: Jewish Silversmiths of Yemen" and then kids can make their own wearable art from brilliant buckles to polished silver pendants.
Art for All at the BMA
I've been to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) more times than I can count, but somehow I am always steaming through the Arts of Africa, the Americas & the Pacific Islands on my way to some special exhibition. My latest trip we slowed down to find there is much for kids (even those who think they don't like "art")-a dance headdress incorporating human, crocodile, antelope and chameleon forms (from the Bagu/Nalu tribes of African Guinea/Guinea Bissau), a wooden crow mask from the Mambila tribe of Cameroon, a Pre-Columbian Mexican Aztec goddess with temple headdress. Objects in the gallery have interesting function as well as form: the beat of a slit gong drum made of a log was used not only to create music during ceremonies but to transmit messages, and a wooden carving from the Solomon Islands of a male figure riding a turtle is actually a buoy.
Among unexpected objects not to miss with your children elsewhere at the BMA are a carved and gilded carousel figure of a giant bird (England, circa 1900), the Tour Table-a glass table with legs that are made of bike tires (2010 Milan, Italy, from a 1993 design), a case full of pocket watches in shapes from a skull to a mandolin, and a case of 1928 Lalique crystal automobile hood ornaments with shapes like hawks, roosters and frogs.
Every week the BMA offers Free Family Sundays, with activities like family gallery tours, sketching tours and hands-on workshops. The reopening of the BMA's Contemporary Wing will be feted with a Family Sunday of special activities, music and more on November 18.
No matter what day or time you and your children go to the BMA there are engaging free Family Audio Tours, narrated by Matisse's dog Raoudi (that's pronounced "Rowdy"!), looking at 20 works in the collection. The BMA also offers kids costume packs based on an item in the collection. They put on a costume (from dancers to kings), then go find the corresponding artwork and laminated information on it.
If you stop to eat before or after your visit, two sculpture gardens outside Gertrude's at the BMA give antsy kids a place to run around and explore while waiting for your food.
While You're There
At the Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American Culture (a Smithsonian affiliate), The Strength of the Mind Gallery in particular tells history through art. Saturday's Child programming brings live performances and art workshops on select Saturdays.
Geppi's Entertainment Museum is a treasure trove of American pop culture, art expressed on media from lunch boxes to comic books, from early Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola images to Flintstones to Spider-Man, from the late 1700s on.
Port Discovery 's Studio Workshop space has visual arts programming that changes several times a year (recommended for ages 2 and up). As part of its strong programming for children with special needs, the next inclusive Be A Part of the Art Day is November 16 (all ages). Admission is limited and advance registration is required. portdiscovery.org
Where to Stay While You Play
Hotel Monaco Baltimore is located conveniently on Charles Street between the Inner Harbor just a few blocks to the south and more museums to the north. The boutique hotel is chic but child-friendly, with amenities like free cribs or play yards, babyproofing kits and highchairs. Kids get a toy when they arrive and there are kid-size animal print robes waiting in the room for each as well, just like those for the grown-ups. Stroller and car rentals including child safety seats and accredited babysitting are also offered.
Other Convenient, Family-Friendly Hotels:
At City Cafe, indulge in Baltimore magazine's 2012 Best Brunch, joined by a diverse group of diners from single hipsters to folks still in their church finery to the owners and occupants of the row of strollers parked inside. The first thing that'll endear you to City Cafe is the tiny cinnamon rolls they bring to tide you and your hungry bunch over when you first sit down. The tables are refreshingly far apart, so you can hear each other talk. And the food-yum…try the Fried Chicken & Biscuits with Poached Egg or the Lemon-Ricotta Pancakes.
At Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., your kids won't get the references to the popular Tom Hanks movie but they'll like the items on the kids menu, like Hubba Bubba Popcorn Shrimp and the Run Forest Run fruit smoothie.