In New York, a place whose cultural institutions attract people from around the world, there are residents who not only have never visited those institutions but also some who have never even been uptown.
“We have people living on the Lower East Side who have not taken the bus or the train,” says Brigitte Rivera, a family child specialist at University Settlement, a social services organization in Manhattan. This surprising problem—a simple transit hurdle—is just one of the many barriers that separate New York’s lower-income and immigrant populations from its renowned arts and cultural offerings.
As the executive director of Cool Culture, Candice Anderson thinks about how to lower such barriers for exactly the kind of clients that Rivera has. Founded in 1999, Cool Culture makes museums, botanical gardens and zoos accessible to families who have had limited exposure to these attractions. They do this in all sorts of ways: securing free admission to 90 different institutions, facilitating families’ first museum visits and training early educators to encourage arts education in their communities. Funding comes through a combination of individual, corporate and government support. “If you think about the history of museums in the U.S., they’ve been a rarified space,” says Anderson. “There’s a history of class divide, so people rarely think of them as educating the masses.”
I met Anderson while she was conducting one of Cool Culture’s “Labs,” in which museum educators come together to envision new ways of serving diverse audiences. Anderson—who can’t help but lower barriers to access—welcomed me in.
The Labs are a series of six intensive sessions the group is currently offering through April. Their aim is to find innovative solutions to, for instance, the transit conundrum that Rivera brings up. According to the Cool Culture chief, there are a lot of reasons that less-advantaged New Yorkers don’t go to museums. But only a handful has anything to do with money. “The nuts and bolts of museum-going can seem like Greek to people,” Anderson says.
Take the Museum of Modern Art. Strolling through, one encounters rooms enveloped in silence, while others echo with chatter. “Large institutions come with their own rules of behavior that aren’t always obvious,” says Anderson. It can also be unclear to families who have never been to a museum which audience particular exhibits are intended to reach. Will the Hayden Planetarium dazzle a space-obsessed 9-year-old, or bore her to death with endless minutiae about particle physics? And then there’s the highly visible security apparatus—for example, metal detectors, bag searches and uniformed guards—that fortifies many of these institutions, which can feel uninviting to people from neighborhoods where the cops aren’t necessarily a reassuring presence.
The ongoing Labs—and Cool Culture in general—seek to better align these institutions’ resources to make them more accessible to New York families for whom museums seem prohibitively expensive or otherwise out of reach. That task is more pressing than ever, as public schools increasingly “shove arts to the side,” says Anderson, “which is a shame, because children really have so many different ways of learning.”
The importance of art in child development has never been better documented. Studies have shown how watching a person sing can help infants differentiate between sensory combinations like facial expression and voice. Dance can deepen an elementary-school child’s awareness of diagonals, curves and twists. Visual art teaches preteens to recognize different vantage points in problems and ideas. And in a world in which various forms of social media cut kids’ attention spans to the length of a tweet, an immersive environment like a museum can be instructive in and of itself. “The ability to attend to things is a skill,” says Anderson. “It’s a muscle you need to build, and the arts have a unique set of assets that really lend themselves to children’s explorations.”
Cool Culture has seen this phenomenon play out in hard numbers. In a series of intensive partnerships, in which the progress of Cool Culture kids was tracked, 80 percent of participating children showed improvement in literacy skills.
It’s not just the kids who learn something. “Parents are the first educators,” says Anderson. “A child will move from one class to the next, but the parents are still there.” That’s why Cool Culture organizes around whole families—50,000 and counting. Anderson recalls her own upbringing near Washington, D.C. “My parents took me to exhibitions of African art, and the Museum of Natural History on the Mall. I can remember the smell, the huge elephant that welcomed people. I think I gained an understanding that it was important to learn outside of a school context, and that they [museums] had a critical role to play in supplementing what was going on in the classroom.”
Rounding out the everybody-wins dynamic are the institutions themselves. At Cool Culture’s annual fair in November at the National Museum of the American Indian, dozens of representatives from the city’s cultural organizations gathered to pitch their own offerings. One of the attendees was Billie Rae Vinson, coordinator of family programs for the Whitney Museum of American Art. She’s worked with Cool Culture to get underserved children into the museum’s monthly art-making program. That weekend, the kids had used viewfinders to zoom in on various objects and create paintings in the mold of Georgia O’Keeffe.
But the Whitney gets something too, says Vinson—a whole new demographic it may otherwise not have attracted. “The Upper East Side isn’t terribly diverse,” she says. “This lets us promote our programs to a broader audience.”
Thomas Hurtubise, manager of education at the Queens Zoo, echoes this sentiment. “Corona, [Queens, where the museum is located], is largely a Hispanic neighborhood. The wildlife we have can bring those people closer to home. We get people who say they never knew they had Andean bears in their home country before they visited us,” he says proudly.
This is exactly the kind of connection Cool Culture aims for, and the type of positive experience that can keep a kid coming back for more for the rest of their lives. Last year, Cool Culture families made 185,000 visits to New York’s cultural institutions—185,000 teachable moments that had nothing to do with school. “There’s research that shows that children who visit cultural institutions are much more likely to become museum-goers over time,” says Anderson. “This is different than classroom learning.”