Where Everyone Belongs: The Ringling creates inclusive family spaces within art galleries

It's fun trying to guess what Ana Juarez, Community Engagement Fellow and Outreach Coordinator at The Ringling, might bring to the twice-monthly family art-making activity in the museum's Education Center.

This time, Juarez arrives with a rainbow selection of the color-coding "dot" stickers sold in office supply stores -- also, some glue and craft store pom-poms -- and the kids play with pattern and texture while creating their own interpretations of Infinity Dots artist Yayoi Kusama's repeating polka-dot style. 

"You may hear the term 'art museum' and think you can't do anything in the galleries -- you can't bring wet activities or Play-Doh -- but we have 66 acres to work with, so the sky's the limit," she says. 

Juarez also brings her supplies on the road to local libraries where she presents art projects designed to spark a connection with specific objects and exhibitions that families can later visit in The Ringling galleries (such as an exhibition featuring the dot-patterned work of Kusama).

These kid-focused art activities are a vital component of Where Everyone Belongs (WEB), a program offering family memberships to The Ringling that are underwritten by the Barancik Foundation. WEB is also supported by the Community Foundation of Sarasota and works in collaboration with more than a dozen nonprofit organizations in Sarasota and Manatee County. 

Connecting the dots for meaningful museum experiences

On paper: Barancik Foundation grant funding provides free family memberships to The Ringling. In practice: There are sometimes colorful polka-dots involved -- and, always, an outreached hand of support for parents who may not otherwise have the desire or opportunity to bring their children to the museum.

"It's about finding that exciting pathway in," says Juarez.

After the art-making, Juarez encourages kids to bring their completed works of polka-dot art along when their family visits The Ringling -- where the young artists will encounter the pattern-rich work of Yayoi Kusama, Teo González, and other Contemporary and Modern artists in the Interpolations: Artworks from the Monda Collections exhibition.

?For children who are walking into an art museum for the first time, arriving with a personal connection in hand is an empowering experience. For parents and caregivers, being able to provide that experience is just as important. 

WEB at The Ringling exists to connect those dots.

Partnering with community organizations

"Research has shown time and time again that going out and having positive learning experiences with your family is just as important as time in school -- and that a child is more likely to succeed if they have been exposed to the arts. An art museum is a place to work on critical thinking and boost language skills in a language-rich environment," Juarez says.

Two years into its four-year grant cycle, Juarez explains that WEB isn't running a sprint: It's a marathon effort to create meaningful and enduring multigenerational relationships with the museum. The Ringling strives to achieve 800 new family memberships by the conclusion of the WEB grant cycle.

"We're building a network of trust; something that's ongoing -- it's not just a one-off. I see these families every single month, and I've seen them every single month for the last two years," Juarez notes.

To reach kids of all ages and abilities, as well as their families, WEB partners with 13 diverse nonprofit community organizations operating in Sarasota and Manatee counties, including Easter Seals of Southwest Florida, Forty Carrots Family Center, Visible Men Academy, and UnidosNow. 

"Kids spend a lot of time outside school. If you can find amazing, low-cost opportunities: All families want their children to succeed. It's our mission, at the heart of why the museum exists, to get our resources to families who would benefit most from them," Juarez says.

Every week, Juarez brings an age-appropriate, Ringling exhibition-related, art-making activity to Forty Carrots' Partners in Play program at the Braden River Library. The program offers a space where caregivers can seek free advice from parenting educators while their kids play and create. Juarez also brings art projects to Easter Seals' Monthly Project Rainbow "Kids Night Out," a respite service for caregivers of children who are chronically ill or have other special needs, as well as their siblings. 

"The kids come for four hours and they have a lot of fun. Parents can drop their kids off and have a romantic dinner, get their hair done, go shopping. It's valuable time they have to themselves," Juarez says.

When caregivers arrive to pick up their children and brag over their new refrigerator-worthy masterpiece, Juarez offers WEB's free Ringling Family Membership -- an open door invitation for the family to visit and experience the galleries together.
"We want the parent or caregiver, as much as the child, to be in engaged in learning together. It's our goal to get everyone excited and seeing that there's something here for everybody, so we're removing the barrier of cost so you can visit as a family and experience everything your state art museum has to offer you," says Juarez.

Overcoming a 'stuffy' stereotype

In terms of public perception and accessibility, Juarez admits museums worldwide face an uphill battle. As part of The Ringling's WEB program, parents can self-report how comfortable they feel in the museum -- and what the museum might do to improve -- through anonymous surveys.

"A crisis museums across the world are facing is the question of relevancy: if a museum or cultural institution is not relevant to its immediate community, you need to ask yourself why, as an institution," says Juarez. 

"[The Ringling] has people coming in, but a lot of times its international visitors. We need to reach families in our own community. This is our first step in connecting with those families."

Although her title as Community Engagement Fellow will conclude in two years with the completion of the WEB grant, Juarez says her overlapping role as the Ringling's Outreach Coordinator remains rooted in inclusivity.

"It's really about welcoming families from all backgrounds, regardless of socioeconomic status, religion, or ability, and creating a museum environment where they can return to have fun learning or engagement experiences as a family unit," she says.

Juarez says feedback from WEB participants encouraged the museum to shift its approach to family programming by removing all cost barriers. The Ringling is currently transitioning toward making all family programs free to the public.

"We're seeing that it works: Families do want to come here and feel welcome. We're trying to work from our end to understand how can we be more accessible, more open, and more welcoming to everyone? How can we keep it that way?"

Looking beyond the grant cycle, Juarez envisions a future in which families throughout Sarasota and Manatee (and Florida) will perceive The Ringling as a place that feels like home -- a space where they can return and always feel inspired and connected: a museum where everyone belongs.

To learn more about Where Everyone Belongs, Interpolations: Artworks from the Monda Collections, and summer activities for kids and families, visit The Ringling website.

Here are links to additional organizations mentioned in this 83 Degrees story:
The Barancik FoundationCommunity Foundation of SarasotaEaster Seals of Southwest Florida, Project Rainbow, Forty Carrots Family Center, Partners in PlayVisible Man Academy. and UnidosNow.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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