March 15, 2010  |  Events & Programs
My Life in Museums: The Importance of Community Outreach and Teen Programs

The author (center, in black shirt) with the Walker's first Teen Arts Council, 1996

Yesterday afternoon I was teaching printmaking to students at a nonsecure educational facility run by the Juvenile Justice Department, when one of the teens showed me what he was working on and said, “My work looks good, man. You should put it up in your museum.”

He meant it jokingly, the sort of statement teens make when they’re proud of themselves and overcome with a bit of adolescent bravado. But behind all of that was a clear yearning to be seen, for his hard work to be recognized. Today, his group visited the Museum for a guided tour, and I was able to hand them information on MoMA’s teen programs. I told them that if they wanted their art to hang here, a first step to take is signing up for one of our free classes. These students are being educated at their facility because, for whatever reason, mainstream education isn’t working for them. But I have utter faith that, high school dropout or honor roll student, rich or poor, attending teen programs at a museum will irrevocably alter their lives for the better. That isn’t hyperbole. It’s personal history.

In the spring of 1996, thanks to a partnership between the Walker Art Center and my public high school in Minneapolis, I was offered the opportunity to take a free art class. I was glad to do it; I’d always been interested in art, and it allowed me to get out of the big, oppressive, windowless building I had to spend most of my time in. At that age, school wasn’t doing it for me. I knew I was smart, but I was bored and uninterested in attending classes, having fallen in with a group of friends who were, shall we say, otherwise engaged for the majority of the school day.

The art class was a revelation. The Walker’s sleek and modern auditorium felt like a different world from my concrete and cinderblock high school; the assignments were completely different than the worksheets and bubble tests I was skipping out on at school. For the first time in my educational career, I noticed that I was doing more than what was asked of me, turning in elaborate art projects for even the simplest assignments. The educator from the Walker noticed the change as well. When the class ended for the year, she approached me and asked if I wanted to stay involved with the museum. I said yes, and with that, my career in the arts began.

The Teen Arts Council shows artist Robin Rhode (center, in red hat) how to survive a Minnesota winter, 2003.

That fall, when I was sixteen, the Walker started the Teen Arts Council. As one of the initial group of students, I remember the feeling of being involved in something that was creating its own rules and goals as we went along. We brought artists from all over the country into the museum and started up our own arts magazine. We put on teen art shows, recorded radio advertisements, and introduced films. We hung out in the galleries with Bruce Conner, listened to Fischli and Weiss explain their working process, worked on art projects with Robin Rhode, and ate dinner with musician Michael Franti. My teacher at the Walker, Christi Atkinson, became a mentor to me, and she was able to reach me and inspire me in a way that teachers from my high school never could. The museum saw an upsurge in the amount of teens that began to visit, and the Walker’s Teen Arts Council became a blueprint for other museums across the country as they sought to tap into this new audience.

Filled with confidence and real-world experience, I went on to attend college, did well, graduated, and began working as a visual artist. Like my mentor Christi, who had worked at MoMA for a short time in the 1990s, I moved to New York City. In 2005 I became the educator in charge of running the Bronx Museum of the Arts‘s first-ever Teen Council, a position I maintain to this day. In 2006, after working a series of freelance museum jobs, I was hired by the Community and Access Department here at MoMA. In 2007 Kathy Halbreich, who had been the Director of the Walker during the entirety of my involvement there, became the Associate Director of MoMA. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. My current life, therefore, feels very connected to my time on the Teen Arts Council. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t explicitly reference something I learned from my own involvement in teen programs.

“Personally, I think that it is our responsibility as a cultural institution to engage young people in critiquing, challenging, and shaping the world around them,” says Marit Dewhurst, the Associate Educator for Teen Programs here at MoMA. “I also feel that museums offer unique spaces for having complex conversations about contemporary ideas that cannot often happen in other spaces, like schools. Since art has long been a site for influencing or instigating social change, I think it makes perfect sense that young people can learn about how other artists have impacted society throughout history, while also learning how to use those same creative tools themselves.”

If it hadn’t been for a museum’s commitment to community outreach, and its desire to create worthwhile programming for teens, I can say that I have literally no idea where I would be today. When you’re a teenager, who you are is still in flux, and as a result the future can seem terrifying. Coming to terms with your identity as an artist and your place within the art world is daunting, even for adults. We know the grim statistics about arts funding, especially in the underfunded public school systems of our nation’s larger cities. More and more, it falls on us as cultural institutions to pick up this slack and create safe, creative environments for this next generation of artists to flourish. Their work looks good, man. We should put it up in our Museum.