There are art shows. and then there are art experiences.

At East Elementary in Lancaster, Ohio, students recently experienced art at a whole new level, thanks to the PTO. Not only did the children create the art displayed at the school’s first student art show, they also attended the evening event in their best clothing, politely complimented fellow artists on their work, and then mingled with guests. They sampled hors d’oeuvres and conversed while classical music softly played in the background.

“Our school is in a neighborhood where a lot of kids have never been to an art museum,” says PTO president Beth Craft. “We tried to make it a very classy event.”

The idea for the art show came about early in the school year and was in response to budget cuts that left East Elementary without an art program. While teachers did art projects with their classes, there was no curriculum to provide students with background on artists or information about genres and techniques. Kerri Rodenbaugh, a parent who works as a graphic designer, approached the PTO with the idea of an art show. “We loved the idea and offered assistance in any way we could,” Craft says.

Rodenbaugh came up with a plan to help each grade focus on a particular artist. During the fall months, she provided information on artists to the teachers. In some cases, she went into classrooms and assisted teachers in their lessons. Students were asked to create a project related to their grade’s artist.

In late winter, PTO volunteers (more than 20 as the show date grew near) worked on mounting each piece of art. Volunteers placed some of the artwork on basic construction paper, but even that simple effort gave it a special presentation.

At the end of March, other volunteers, including Craft, created an art gallery throughout the school by covering the walls with black paper and then displaying the pieces on this backdrop. The group also borrowed display boards from the local high schools and used them to showcase the students’ work. More than 400 individual pieces (including some that were suspended from the ceiling!) were included.

For the art show reception, the PTO received donations from parents that included finger foods, small plates, and cocktail napkins. The group also used a modest sum from the PTO budget to round out the food offerings with some vegetable and fruit platters. Volunteers set up the reception area in the gym for families to socialize and snack. The music teacher selected students to play music during the reception. When the musicians took a break, classical music was piped in via an iPod and speakers.

Leading up to the big night, the children were instructed on proper etiquette. Rodenbaugh created a slideshow presentation that the teachers used to talk to students about how to behave at an art gallery. For example, they were instructed to keep their hands behind their backs when viewing art to help prevent them from touching it. The presentation also included suggestions on how to dress, how to eat finger food, and how to comment on other artists’ work.

On a Friday evening in late March, the art show opened to the East Elementary community. “We were absolutely thrilled with the response we got,” Craft says. “We had great comments from the community about how nice it was for the kids and the school. It was a really, really wonderful evening.”

East Elementary PTO

Lancaster, Ohio

400 students, grades K-5

$7,000 annual budget

Portrait of an Art Show

The East Elementary art show focused not only on works of art but also on creating a gallery atmosphere so children could experience an art exhibit opening.

Make it a star-studded event: The PTO invited well-known community members and elected officials to the art show to give the event an extra wow factor.

Look for a fundraising angle: Each grade was encouraged to produce a special piece of art, based on the same artist who inspired the individual student works, which was then framed. The six class items were auctioned at the event.

Encourage “the staff” to get gussied up: PTO president Beth Craft says the volunteers attended in nice outfits so they too could have a true art gallery experience.