On a recent trip to the Pasadena Museum of History, Kristyn Webster’s fourth-grade students from Hamilton Elementary School drew a picture of a fountain near the Fenyes Mansion. After deciding how to approach the project, Nikki began sketching and was obviously enjoying herself. “I like art,” she said. “I have this box at home with lots of paints. I sketch something first and then I paint it.”

Nikki’s answer would have pleased officials with the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), who since 2008 have administered My Masterpieces, a program that seeks to teach elementary school students about the visual arts. The program provides 9,000 students with in-class instruction enhanced by field trips to local cultural institutions.     

Jen Olsen, PUSD’s arts education coordinator, was working at the Norton Simon Museum when the school district began organizing the program. “I sat down with museum colleagues, and very few PUSD teachers were taking kids on field trips to museums,” she recalls. The few students who made these trips came from what she describes as the “well-resourced schools.”   

My Masterpieces sought to level the playing field by arranging field trips for all elementary school kids, empowering them to learn about and appreciate the arts.  “No matter what your background is, this is your city,” Olsen says. “And as a citizen you should know and feel comfortable going to all of the arts organizations.” 

The program begins in kindergarten, when students who study the life cycle of butterflies visit Kidspace Children’s Museum to make their own butterflies and learn more about plants and animals. First-graders visit Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens to discuss how people care about each other by looking at paintings, such as Mary Cassatt’s “Breakfast in Bed,” which depicts a mother embracing her daughter. 

Second-graders are introduced to public art by taking a tour of Pasadena, viewing artworks near City Hall and along Colorado Boulevard. In the third grade students initially board Side Streets Project’s bus and learn woodworking by making functional objects. They later visit Gamble House to see how functional objects, like lamps, chairs or architectural features, can be forms of art.     

Fourth-graders studying California history learn about the state’s art by visiting the Pasadena Museum of History and the Pasadena Museum of California. Some fourth-grade teachers also invite members of the Pasadena-based California Art Club to teach students about plein air painting.

Fifth-grade students view some of the classic paintings and Asian art at the Norton Simon Museum and tour the Armory Center for the Arts, where Olsen says the contemporary art exhibits “blow their minds.” During the program’s final year, sixth-graders visit the USC Pacific Asia Museum to view artworks, learn about the Silk Road, and participate in workshops in which artists show them how to do calligraphy and make mandalas.

Although the activities at Gamble House and the Norton Simon Museum predate the program, the other institutions needed time to create activities for My Masterpieces. For that reason, PUSD gradually phased in the program, initially operating it at only four elementary schools in the 2008-2009 school year. Four schools were added to the program each year until 16 schools participated.  

My Masterpieces originated with Joan Palmer, a board member of the Pasadena Educational Foundation (PEF), who in the mid-2000s chaired Cultural Nexus, a community effort to advance art and culture in Pasadena. Olsen explains that Cultural Nexus, which was adopted by the city in 2007, sought to have schools, arts organizations and the city “all work together seamlessly to provide cradle-to-grave arts education experiences,” including activities for children. 

During the 2007-2008 school year PUSD teachers worked with representatives of local arts organizations to create a curriculum for My Masterpieces, looking to discover what Olsen describes as the “sweet spot”: the types of classroom activities that can be translated to a museum setting. 

“The timing was critical,” says Angela Parris, PEF development director. “This was the time that arts education was being drastically cut.” 

Annual operating expenses for My Masterpieces are between $80,000 and $100,000, with a large portion of this amount allocated for bus transportation for field trips. The cultural institutions participating in the program offer their services without charge to PUSD.    

The PEF, which raises about $12 million a year for PUSD programs, provides some of the funding for My Masterpieces. Parris says the program is valuable because, “From the time [PUSD students] come to kindergarten, if they continue to the sixth-grade, they’re going to have a very in-depth experience at every cultural institution in Pasadena that the nonpublic schools cannot match.” 

My Masterpieces obtains additional funding from individual donors, corporations, and charitable foundations, including the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation and Capital Group Companies.

Olsen says the program’s success can be measured by surveys, in which teachers are asked if they note differences between students who have participated in My Masterpieces and those who have not. Many middle school teachers maintain participants are more comfortable using art materials and expressing themselves through the arts.

“They also know about the institutions,” she adds.  “Before, when kids visiting a museum were asked if they had gone to a museum before, maybe two or three hands would go up. Now on every tour every hand is up. 

“That means something. These kids know how to answer questions about artwork. They know how to about art, how to slow down and look at it. You can see the impact.”

Hastings Ranch Nursery School is located at 3740 E. Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 351-9171 or visit hrns.org.