In an admirable effort to give families something to actually do on Family Day, the Art Gallery of Ontario opened its doors and floors yesterday to small children for a crash course in art history and DIY drawing.
On Family Day, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto’s biggest public repository of valuable artwork, performed a risky experiment: It held a full day of kid-oriented programming, during which the gallery, with the help of Bunch, rebranded itself “the Kids’ Gallery of Ontario.” (On promotional materials, the “K” was scribbled over the “A,” as if with marker.)
“We don’t mind it—we love kids,” said Donovan Bennett, a security officer at the AGO, as hundreds of tykes with dubious motor-coordination skills careened around the vestibule like guided missiles gone haywire. But maybe, Bennett conceded, it would be better if there were some restraints in place. “I’m gonna invent, like, a zapper,” he said. In a revolving door at the front of a building, a child spun himself round and round several times, laughing hysterically, until his mother angrily plucked him out by the sleeve of his winter jacket.
The popularity of the event wasn’t surprising. Family Day was added to the Ontario business calendar in 2008 without a lot of detailed marching orders to go with it, and so now a large chunk of the population has a day off from work or school that they have absolutely no clue about how to spend. By offering discounted tickets and kid-friendly activities, the AGO tapped into what seems to be a dire need for something fun to do with small kids on winter’s weirdest holiday.
Off in the Weston Family Learning Centre, the AGO’s recently completed program space, Callum Harp, who is five, was one of maybe 50 children seated at low tables with their guardians, making artwork out of foam blocks, dowels, paper cups, and other objects that had been provided by the gallery for the purpose. “I’m making a boat,” he said. “This is the driver’s seat,” he added, indicating a black chunk of foam speared through with a wooden skewer. Under plexiglass, it could have passed for a Dadaist masterpiece, but Callum’s mother, Caren Watkins, didn’t seem to think her child was engaged in a meditation on meaninglessness. “It’s kind of abstract,” she allowed.
On a special, whirlwind childrens’ tour of the gallery, about a dozen families followed Laboni Islam, an education officer at the AGO, on a quick survey of a few kid-friendly points of interest. “You always have to stand one giant step away from the art at all times,” Islam told the crowd of two- to seven-year-olds, some of whom were still at a developmental phase where they definitely would have derived equal pleasure from chewing on a canvas as looking at it. “And we never, ever touch.”
The first stop was Green and Purple, by Jack Bush—an abstract painting of brightly coloured geometric shapes. All the kids sat down before the canvas. “Now, who can tell me what colours we see here?” asked Islam.
“Green!” said one.
“Red!” said another.
“Purple!” said a third.
“…green!” said a fourth. (They say the best artists steal.)
The third and final stop on the tour was Daedalus and Icarus, by Anthony van Dyck, a 17th-century baroque painter. Islam explained the myth to the children—the wax wings, the paternal warning, the inevitable crash when Icarus flies too close to the sun.
“And what is our Family Day lesson?” asked Islam.
“Listen to your parents,” said one child.
Islam agreed, but added a corollary: “And parents,” she said, “don’t let your children go too far away.”