Things have changed, though -- so much so that Child magazine ranks the 10 best art museum for kids in its March issue. Note that it's not "children's art museums," these are the real deal.
No. 1 on the list is the Chicago Institute of Art, which has family art camps and an exhibit called "Faces, Places and Inner Spaces," an interactive exhibit featuring art from eight countries.
Child editor in chief Miriam Arond decided it was time to explore art museums after noticing "a big change in attitude."
"We all grew up with a 'Don't touch, don't talk too loud' attitude. But there's a recognition now that if you don't get children excited about art at a young age, it's unlikely they'll walk in when they're 15 or 20 and be immediately captivated. ... Art museums have come a long way in catering to kids."
Museums are following the paths forged by other experiences that used to be adult-oriented, including the dentist's office, which now might have an aquarium, or a hair salon that keeps kiddie videos playing.
Locally, the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri has taken a lead role in exposing children of all ages to the arts.
Each year, the council holds a children's arts festival featuring artwork by local students in an exhibit. There is also a summer program with art classes in a variety of mediums for children as young as infants.
In May, the organization will hold its sixth Artscape Fine Arts Festival in Capaha Park. The event includes a kids' art tent with an entertainment stage and crafts ranging from origami to face painting, sand art and jewelry making.
"Kids are just natural artists. They haven't figured out what rejection is, they just create and don't care what anyone thinks," said Margaret Dement, interim director at the arts council. "They're totally into it, and that's why it's so important for them to have these opportunities."
Instead of just looking and admiring Rembrandt's paintings at the Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio, beginning in June children will be able to dress up in costumes similar to the subjects. Families also can borrow "gallery bags" that include a magnetic board on which children can make their own Mondrians.
At the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, there's an interactive multimedia exhibit that explores pre-Hispanic art, African art and 20th century American paintings.
"Touching is extremely exciting for children. It eliminates the distance between children and art," Arond says.
With art being a favorite target of school budget cutters, exposing children to art is increasingly becoming the responsibility of parents and the museums they turn to, Arond says, and it seems as if museums see this as an opportunity to ensure their own futures.
She adds: "Parents are learning a lot about art, too. Not every parent is an art history major! The activities not only make children more in tune to art, but the parent gets more interested and will really think about what they're looking at."
The Art Institute of Chicago started years ago offering family workshops that combine a visit to the gallery with an art-making experience and it's snowballed from there, says Jean Sousa, director of interpretive exhibitions and family programs.
Now a day at the museum can be quality family time and a quality cultural experience, she says.
And, Sousa agrees, the museum certainly is getting something out of it. The natural interest in programs boosts a museum's visibility without spending advertising dollars that are getting harder to come by.
"People perceive art museums as an adult place. They think a piece of art isn't as accessible as a bear or giraffe so they take the kids to the zoo. But if we're guiding you through the museum and encouraging kids to be a part of it, that perception will change," Sousa says.
And Sousa doesn't expect -- or even want -- children to spend their time at the museum learning the definition of "impressionist." What she wants them to leave with is an understanding of how there is meaning in things and objects.
"If you stop and examine a painting or sculpture, you can figure out a lot about what's going on. This carries over to life. Art can be about observation, deduction and reasoning."
Those skills translate to school. "There are so many dimensions of learning that can happen at a museum. That's why you want to have the experience as a young child. Then you can keep coming back again and again and keep building on it," Sousa says.
Child's top 10 list: Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Dayton Art Institute, the de Young, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., Winterthur Museum and Country Estate in Winterthur, Del., Dallas Museum of Art and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
When visiting any of these museums or others, Child's Arond encourages parents to call ahead to make sure any exhibit they plan to see is indeed open. Once at the museum, go to the information center and ask if there are special maps for children.
"Don't be overly ambitious on the first visit. Focus on one or two galleries with the pieces that are most likely to appeal to children," Arond advises.
Staff writer Callie Clark Miller contributed to this report.