As a busy mom of two young kids, I’m always on the lookout for family-friendly places with entertaining, educational, low-stress, indoor activities that won’t break the budget or take up an entire day. Museums are pretty safe bet, but for years I avoided taking my kids to art museums because I don’t know that much about art myself. I worried about what would happen if my kids were too loud, wanted to touch the art, or just felt out of place in an art museum. Did a local art museum exist that would be both welcoming and not require me be an expert?
For years, I’ve heard critics and audiences praise the art and architecture of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. When I heard that the Museum was free for kids ages 17 and under, I decided it was time to learn more about the artist and the Museum itself. Clyfford Still started out as a traditional artist, but his artistic style evolved, and he invented a new way to paint. He created colorful, vibrant works of art on huge canvases without recognizable images or landscapes. Instead, he mixed abstract shapes, colors, and lines to express an idea or a feeling. Still didn’t name his individual paintings or drawings because he wanted people to make their own interpretations of what they saw in his art.
In 1951, he walked away from the art world and kept the majority of his paintings and drawings until his death in 1980. When his estate chose Denver as the location for a museum to showcase his art, the city took ownership 95% of everything he created, including more than 3,000 paintings and drawings. The Museum truly belongs to the people of Denver!
Designed to specifically to showcase Still’s art, the Clyfford Still Museum’s galleries are full of natural light and are large enough to showcase his massive paintings, but small enough to feel intimate and welcoming. Visitors can take as much or as little time as they want to move throughout the space. The Museum encourages talking and taking photos, but also offers plenty of quiet spaces including two peaceful outdoor terraces. Even at its busiest, it never feels too loud or overwhelming.
What will the kids think of the Museum?
The initial apprehension I had about taking my kids to the Clyfford Still Museum quickly faded during my five-year-old son’s first visit. When we first entered the Museum, we were greeted by welcoming smiles from the front desk staff. When one of the staff members saw my child, he came out from behind the desk and crouched to get at eye level with my son. He asked if he wanted an “art protector” sticker (which looked like a sheriff’s badge) and which color he would like. My son smiled, said “yes,” and picked a green sticker from the stack. The staff member then explained in a gentle and friendly way what it means to be an art protector at the Museum and why it’s important not to touch the paintings. Before I took him to see the art, we walked down a hallway with archive displays full of items that belonged to Clyfford Still. When he saw Still’s baseball and glove, it made an instant connection between my son and the artist.
Once we got up into the galleries, I noticed that the big paintings with bold colors and unrecognizable shapes didn’t confuse him at all. For a kid who naturally draws and paints abstract forms himself, he loved the massive, colorful canvases. “That one looks like fire,” he told me, pointing to a painting with streaks of red, yellow, and orange. Throughout that first visit, he used his imagination to see all kinds of things including animals, shapes, trees, and more. Everything my son saw in the paintings was exactly how the artist intended because Still wanted people to make their own conclusions about his art.
I wondered if other kids would react the same way to the abstract art. The Museum’s education team shared a few testimonials with me from other kids who had visited on school trips. One eight-year-old student told them, “You let us think about Clyfford Still’s artwork and didn’t tell us what it meant. You didn’t tell us our ideas were wrong, but you edged us on to keep going.” Another student said, “I learned that figure drawing is like looking at what other people see in shapes, but abstract drawing is like looking at clouds and making out pictures of shapes in the sky.” These testimonials echoed the idea that love it or hate it, these kids had the freedom to interpret the art in their own way and that’s what they enjoyed the most.
Tours and hands-on activities
If the thought of visiting on a regular day feels a little intimidating, the Clyfford Still Museum offers Family Tours once a month and more frequently during holiday or school break weeks, like Thanksgiving week and New Year’s Eve. Geared towards kids ages five to ten, the tours are a great intro to the Museum, the art, and the artist. Friendly and highly trained gallery teachers lead the tours, which incorporate different themes for each tour and include hands-on artmaking in the galleries. Following the tour, kids and adults can create art in The Making Space, the Museum’s hands-on art studio.
If you’re worried that you’ll feel lost without a tour but want to visit on your own schedule, the Museum gives families a free bilingual Family Activity Book and colored pencils during each visit. The book teaches families more about the art and artist and inspires them to look, create, and explore the Museum as they work on the activities together.
Exhibitions and events
The Making Space is open anytime the Museum is, so during any visit, kids have the opportunity to create their own art projects using a variety of supplies. This is a great place to escape and make some art!
The Museum rotates exhibitions of Still’s art three times a year and Still: Elemental is on display now through January. Still: Elemental explores the art through the classic Greek elements of earth, air, fire, water, and aether and incorporates a variety of multisensory experiences including smelling dirt and hearing fire.
For other hands-on, multisensory experiences, the Museum offers a “Stimulate Your Senses Station” on select days, including monthly SCFD Free Days. At the station, families can touch the texture of paint on canvas, listen to the sounds of Clyfford Still playing piano, smell the scene of a landscape painting, and incorporate other senses to experience the art in a different way.
To stimulate the senses of sight and hearing, the Museum hosts monthly Music in the Galleries performances featuring a variety of musical styles including jazz, folk, bluegrass, blues, classical, flamenco, and more. Seating is first-come, first-served, but you can hear the music in any one of the galleries. During the summer, the Museum also hosts free monthly outdoor concerts.
Almost all of the Museum’s family-friendly events including tours and Music in the Galleries are included with the price of admission, which is $10 for adults, $8 if you buy online, and kids 17 and under are always free. I encourage you to explore the Clyfford Still Museum with your entire family. You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate everything this hidden gem of a museum has to offer. To learn about the family-friendly offerings at the Clyfford Still Museum, visit https://clyffordstillmuseum.org/family/.