Brandon Lomenzo Black
Images: Courtesy Norton Simon Museum
Norton Simon called the visual arts “one of the most profound means of human communication.” He noted, “By establishing a meaningful dialogue between an artist’s vision of the world and our own perceptions, art can help us to understand ourselves more fully.”
The renowned businessman and private art collector was adamant that the museum which bears his name not just be a place to showcase and store its sizable collection. The museum would jointly facilitate educational and engaging programming for visitors as a means to complement and explore the diversity of language and impression that art evokes.
It’s a legacy that is followed passionately and executed meticulously with carefully curated, interactive programming planned months in advance to appeal to an array of age groups, interest levels, and education backgrounds.
The Norton Simon Museum offers some 50 to 65 events per quarter encompassing 70 to 80 hours worth of programming. Accessibility to the myriad lectures, art classes and workshops, film series, family events, music performances, and more opens the door to engagement and a feeling of belonging for members and nonmembers alike.
“I have a vision that my job is to bring people in at an early age to show them that the museum is a place for them,” says Michelle Brenner, head of education at the museum.
Brenner grew up in Minnesota, regularly frequenting the Minneapolis Institute of Art and taking part in its educational programming. The experiences left an indelible mark that inspires her work, particularly with younger generations in mind.
“My goal is that by the time someone gets to college or by the time they get to retirement, they can come back to the museum and visit artworks that feel like old friends and still continue to see them in new ways through our programming,” she says.
Unlike other museums of the same stature, admission to the Norton Simon and its programs is free for all students with a valid ID, not to mention anyone younger than 18. The admission fee for nonmembers and adults includes a range of programs at no additional cost (drawing classes and art-making workshops are extra).
Focus Night, a collaboration between the education and programming departments, is a hallmark of the museum’s effort to engage a range of age groups with a specific exhibit or theme in the collection.
The event takes place two to three times a year. Participants are treated to a sensory experience incorporated into the evening’s activities.
“We have live music related to the time period or theme of the exhibit along with art-making activities,” says program manager Christine Goo. “Curators and educators are on hand, readily available to answer questions. And we have food in the [Garden Cafe] that is similar to the program’s theme such as French or Indian.”
Programming has expanded year after year, providing Goo the opportunity to find creative ways to appeal to different audiences, not just members.
“We’ve hit this point where we know what works well, we know how many events we should hold per year and the timing,” she says. “It’s fun being creative and reaching new audiences by diversifying the programming.”
Led by a museum educator or curator, Mindful Looking and Afternoon Salons, two monthly programs offer a group no larger than 20 people an intimate look at and deep conversation about a selected artwork or artworks.
The two programs ensure participants are exposed to pieces from all corners of the galleries, not just focusing on the more popular works on display.
Every group brings in a new perspective, says Brenner, who shares in the experience of discovering something unseen in an artwork.
“It’s exciting for me to see someone who might not consider themselves a museum-going person and notice the light go on in their eyes and excitement about a piece of art,” she says. “It’s such a gift to be able to provide or enable that experience for people, no matter what their age.”