As yellow school buses line up to drop off kids at Read Elementary School in Bridgeport, Conn., a white bus decorated with green and black flowers rolls into the parking lot, turning heads. This mobile art museum also enriches minds.
Clare Murray ’18 started the nonprofit called cARTie to bring original art to kids ages 3 to 8, who likely never have been inside an art museum before. Since August 2021, it has visited preschools and elementary schools across Connecticut that have limited access to arts education.
The first museum of its kind in the state, cARTie was nominated for a New England Museum Association Excellence Award earlier this year, and Murray expects more than 50 schools to partake by 2023-24, doubling its current numbers.
“cARTie helps to build much-needed bridges between the arts, education, and social justice,” Murray said. “It nurtures children’s critical and creative thinking dispositions, as well as their appreciation for arts and culture, both fundamental in their development. We do this amidst a system where funding for the arts is not necessarily stable nor universal. Through cARTie, we’re breaking down societal barriers to cultural institutions by starting with our youngest generations.”
High school students create the exhibited artwork that the younger children experience and learn from. For the latter, cARTie begins in the classroom. There, cARTie educators ask them first to pause as they guide them in a few moments of deep breathing, and together they discuss how they can be their best selves in the mobile museum. Then, the kids singsong down the hall on their way to board the bus, which remains parked.
Once inside, Murray and cARTie educators might hand them paintbrushes to hold, inviting them to direct their attention to the brushstrokes in a painting. Or maybe it’s a paper towel roll they use as a viewfinder to focus on a drawing or photograph. cARTie also encourages children to talk and create with each other while they’re in the mobile museum, and gather in a circle on the floor and share what they see, feel, and think.
The annual theme for the artwork is set by an advisory board of nine students from high schools across the state. Every March, art teachers in Connecticut receive Murray’s emails with a call to submit digital, theme-related images of original art. A jury of local artists, educators, and leaders selects about 12 works, based on the artist’s skills and what that person wants the children to feel and ponder. “We also consider their backgrounds, so the younger students see themselves reflected in the artists and their work,” said Murray.
In the summer, Murray mentors a handful of volunteer high school and college students. So far, they’ve spearheaded museum scavenger hunts, designed T-shirts for cARTie staff and volunteers, and made signage for the art. “I really believe in supporting students in anything they feel invested in, from ideation to creation to fulfillment. Their participation cultivates in them creativity, confidence, and leadership,” said Murray.
She honed all three of those traits while at Colby. In 2016, as a sophomore and majoring in Latin American studies and economics, Murray joined Michael Donihue, professor of economics and her advisor, and Betty Sasaki, associate professor of Spanish, in their research to develop an economic impact analysis and needs assessment with Mano en Mano, an organization that supports immigrants and farmworkers in rural Maine.
“Every chance I had to talk with Professor Donihue about my senior honors thesis in economics, studying the relationship between philanthropy and museum education, made me all the more excited about the future I was carving for myself,” said Murray. She names him and several others at Colby that “had what felt like unbelievable confidence in me as a capable worker-bee academic, and I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.”
Next came the Linde Family Foundation Education Internship developing the Colby College Museum of Art’s early-childhood program Art + Storytelling. Murray said, “I had never studied education before, but I loved hearing my mom talk about her work as a private-preschool teacher, and I pushed myself to learn everything I could.”
Murray spent 11 months in Spain on a Fulbright predoctoral research fellowship, analyzing the educational potential and economic efficiency of an emerging network of independent arts and cultural programs. “I came back determined to make cARTie work. I care so much about the prospects of early-childhood museum education, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to build a laboratory to elevate its reputation and recognition more broadly,” said Murray.
She founded cARTie in 2019 with her mother, Elizabeth Murray, chair of the organization, and the following year it became a nonprofit.
By then, Murray had earned two master’s degrees in education and in arts from Harvard and Columbia universities, respectively. In 2021, cARTie had collected enough funding from individuals, local government, and corporations to buy and retrofit a school bus and launch a pilot program with seven schools.
Now, while Murray works on her doctorate in education at Columbia, expected in 2025, she and the organization’s board of directors, along with Colby’s Donihue, are strategically mapping cARTie’s future course as it moves ahead.
“I talk to a lot of museum professionals all over the world. When cARTie comes up, it gets people’s minds churning, it lights their eyes up, and it tickles the inner child in them,” Murray said. “I’d like to believe that cARTie is charging up the field with the energy to reimagine the possibilities of what an art museum can be.”
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