AMMAN, Jordan — Art education might not seem like the greatest concern for Jordan, a country plagued by a dearth of water, oil and other national resources, nearly 30 percent youth unemployment, high poverty rates and an overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees. Still, believing in the inherent value of art and its potential to enrich daily life, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman is working hard to make art accessible.
In 2009, the national gallery started its Touring Museum. Still going strong, it aims to foster art appreciation and to increase visual literacy among Jordanians who have little exposure to fine art.
Run in cooperation with the Education Ministry and financially supported by the Ministries of Culture and Planning and International Cooperation, the program brings together government agencies, museum professionals, artists, students, parents, teachers and school administrators to give disadvantaged children unprecedented access to art.
On a recent sunny day, elementary and middle school children in Ajloun, a town 45 kilometers, or 30 miles, northwest of Amman, watched with rapt attention as the artist Suheil Baqaeen gesticulated wildly at several paintings propped against a row of easels, pointing out their colors and forms. “Red, blue, mountains, circles,” the students clamored in response to his questions about what they saw in the works.
Following an animated discussion about the basics of visual art, the children picked up the pastels that the program provided and began energetically creating their own masterpieces. Although they were free to follow their imaginations, many copied or reinterpreted the works on view or else chose to depict the landscape surrounding their school, dominated by Ajloun Castle, a medieval fortress.
The atmosphere was uproarious as children ran back and forth to the row of easels, proudly holding their drawings next to the originals for comparison. A few of the older boys at first acted as if they were too cool to draw. Yet, in the end, they, too, produced thoughtful depictions of their homes, their friends, and the rolling hills of Ajloun.
For many of these children, Mr. Baqaeen said, “today is their first chance to see art and their first opportunity to pick up a crayon.”
Despite pervasive poverty — 14.2 percent of families live below the poverty line, according to the most recent Central Intelligence Agency statistics — it is not necessarily a lack of financial resources that prevents parents from buying their children art supplies. Rather, it is often “a lack of awareness that art exists,” Mr. Baqaeen said.
“If families can purchase a soccer ball, why not a pack of crayons?” he asked.
Touring Museum seeks to change that through weekly dynamic workshops like the one in Ajloun.
Every Tuesday, Mr. Baqaeen and Khalil al-Majal, the program director, fill a van emblazoned with the Touring Museum logo with a couple of dozen paintings from the museum’s permanent collection and a trove of art supplies and drive out to children in underserved communities across the country. In addition to schools in poor or rural areas, they visit orphanages, rehabilitation centers, refugee camps, youth centers and juvenile detention centers.
Parents and teachers are encouraged to attend the workshops so that they can see firsthand what a strong impression the art makes on the children.
“I want the J.N.G.F.A. to be alive and to reach all kinds of people,” said Khaled Khreis, director of the national gallery, referring to it by its initials.
“That’s why we bring the art outside the museum’s walls and into different communities.”
An acclaimed painter, Mr. Baqaeen is motivated to lead the Touring Museum workshops by his conviction that any child with artistic inclinations and drive should have the opportunity to foster their talents. Exposure to the canon of art history and the ability to recognize art’s formal characteristics are an important part of that process, but Mr. Baqaeen’s greatest gift to future Jordanian artists is the sense of awe and possibility he instills through his own infectious passion for art.
“Art is a fundamental part of life, something that enriches life for everyone,” he insists.
Dina Fleihat, a poised, 14-year-old student who spoke excellent English, said after the workshop that she was “thrilled” the Touring Museum had come to her school: It helped her “understand what art is.”
The discovery of art has not steered her away from her dream of becoming a surgeon, but it has inspired a second dream: “I wish to visit a museum one day,” she said, beaming.
As far as Mr. Baqaeen is concerned, that response proves the program’s success. According to his logic, if Dina makes it to a museum one day, and he is confident she will, she is far more likely to expose her own future children to art. Apply that model on a large scale, and the next generation of Jordanians will have a greater awareness of art.
If it inspired only a few of them to dream big, that would be a considerable contribution to society, he said.
A version of this article appears online and in print on November 18, 2013, in The International New York Times,