Augustus “Gus” Swanson has grown up at the Blanton. Literally. His father, Chris, began visiting the museum with the child when Gus was just a few months old, and they’ve faithfully returned nearly every Thursday for four and a half years.
What originally started as a way to meet his wife for lunch near where she worked has developed into a tradition. “We’ve missed a handful of weeks over the years, but otherwise it is a staple of our weekly activities,” said Chris, when we tagged along with the pair a few weeks ago. Arriving at the Visitor Services Desk, Gus immediately broke into a big smile, greeting staff members who knew him by name. Chris noted that Gus has probably spent more time with some of the Blanton staff members than he has with some of his extended family. Even though the family had bought a Blanton membership and could visit for free on any day, Chris stressed the “value in consistency” of coming on Thursdays, noting that the rest of Gus’s week was fairly unscheduled. Once the greetings were over with, Gus bounded up the atrium steps, eager to show us around the museum.
Our first stop was Hans Hofmann’s Elysium, one of Gus’s favorite paintings in the collection. Chris remarked that as a baby, the abstract paintings were Gus’s favorites because of the bright colors. But now as a four and a half year old, Gus likes to re-title the paintings and make up his own stories about the artwork. When asked what he’d title the Hofmann painting, Gus paused and thought for a minute before replying, “Grass, Water, Volcano, and Sun.” As we continued around the museum, Gus threw out other titles for various works of art and made astute observations. He spent a few minutes in front of Tavares Strachan’s Constellation (Child-Panchem Lama), examining the many different photos that make up the child’s face. After studying the artwork, Gus asked his father how many faces were in the piece; Chris took the opportunity to read the wall label to Gus, and the pair spent time looking closely at the numbered photos, with Gus searching to find the next number in the sequence. In another section of the museum, while sitting on the floor in front of Alfredo Hlito’s Formas en el plano, Gus offered up that the artwork reminded him of an atom.
After we expressed surprise that Gus knew about atoms, Chris said that many artworks in the collection functioned as ways to further discussions the pair had started at home. Science, math, and reading were all topics of conversation that could be teased out of the artworks in the galleries. Approaching Cildo Meireles‘ Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals), Gus sat on the paving stones and grabbed a handful of pennies, diligently counting and sorting them, as Chris prompted him with basic math questions: “If we have 500 pennies and take away 10, how many pennies do we have left?” Gus’s answer wasn’t exactly right on his first try, but come on—he’s only four years old!
Gus and Chris don’t always visit by themselves, however. On occasion, they’ll bring friends and other people to explore the museum with. A common fear we hear from parents with small children is that they’re nervous their child will break the rules, or touch the artwork. Gus very rarely has to be reminded how to act because he “grew up in the museum,” says Chris as we watch Gus plop down in front of a sculpture in La línea continua, studying the slightly rotating artwork carefully. “We’ve discussed a little bit how it’s important to not touch the paintings, but Gus watches me and models his behavior after what I’m doing,” says Chris. “He’s been doing it for so long, he knows how to act.” Case in point, when one of Gus’s friends accompanied the pair on a visit and was having an issue with volume, Gus told his friend he needed to be quieter.
When asked if Gus ever got bored with seeing the same art every week, Chris brought up the rotating exhibitions as a source of new material to talk about. One of Gus’s favorite exhibitions was In the Company of Cats and Dogs, on view last summer. In our epic showdown of felines vs. canines, Gus came specifically to see the former. “He liked seeing all the cats” and finding them in the exhibition, said Chris.
After about 40 minutes, Gus was starting to climb on the gallery benches instead of taking us around to artworks, and we began to walk back down the atrium stairs to leave. Chris says that normally their visits last only 20 – 40 minutes—because they come each week, there’s no need to rush or try and fit everything in. Seeing the museum through a child’s eyes was a refreshing departure from the average museum visit; Gus himself summed it up best when we asked him what he liked about a painting as we were wandering around in the galleries:
“I don’t know, but there’s something that makes it so good.”
Alie Cline is the Digital Content Strategist at the Blanton and holds BAs in Art History and English from the University of Texas at Austin. You can find her online as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media profiles, or on Twitter at @aliecline.