On a Thursday afternoon earlier this summer, apprentice educator Tali Petschek and I rushed around the Education Center, heading up to the seventh floor to ferry down supplies to our classroom on the mezzanine level. It was the culminating session of Open Art Space, a new MoMA Teens drop-in program for LGBTQ high school students. For our 15th and final session of the season, we decided, in collaboration with some of our most devoted participants, to do an LGBTQ prom-themed photo shoot. Teens wanted at least a taste of a prom they couldn’t have in their own schools, where they could bring whomever they wanted, dress however they wanted, and explore whatever gender roles felt right to them at that moment.
After much discussion, the teens requested a “Gay-Jungle-Galaxy” theme and we did our very best to deliver. We set up the classroom with photo stations (imagine solar-system backdrops paired with rainbow garlands and tiki-party palm tree decorations) where teens could pose by themselves or in groups for Nestor, the photographer hired for the event. There was amazing energy in the air as Tali and I realized that we weren’t in fact just setting up a photo shoot, we were in a way giving teens the prom they wanted and deserved. We turned the lights low, set up a punch bowl and snacks, and placed flickering faux candles all over the space. One table was arranged with props the teens had made—tiaras and personalized sashes saying things like “Prom Queer” and “Prom They.”
When the teens arrived the session progressed like a mini-prom. They danced, posed for photographs, ate, and laughed with one another. The room felt relaxed and playful, as if everyone could be who they wanted, without worrying about mentioning their same-sex crush, or having anxiety about their chosen gender pronoun. Teens who had come to several sessions chatted with those who had only come once or twice. It was exciting to see how much community had been created in that space in such a short time.
A few weeks prior to our prom, the Open Art Space teens had the opportunity to discuss the artist Robert Gober’s memories of his own prom (and many other topics) when he spent time with them in MoMA’s Conservation Lab. Thanks to the generosity of Associate Conservator Roger Griffith, Open Art Space teens had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn about Gober’s inspirations, processes, and childhood from the artist himself. Gober was open and extremely generous as the teens asked questions and engaged with him about the content of his sculptures—two of which had been brought to the Conversation Lab for the occasion.
An especially revealing moment happened when one of the teens raised their hand and awkwardly asked Gober if he was, in that moment, nervous about speaking to this group of high school students. I held my breath, anxious that we had overstepped, but Gober answered gracefully, admitting that he was a little bit nervous, and that speaking with teenagers was very different than most of the art-world audiences he was used to addressing. That moment led me to reflect on my own time as a teenager, when being out was not a possibility—and discussing queer lived experiences with a renowned artist was definitely not on my radar.
I grew up going to a private religious school outside of Washington, D.C. where gay people just didn’t exist publicly. I came out by writing a letter to the editor of my school newspaper, demanding that they reverse a decision not to publish an advertisement for a suicide prevention helpline aimed at queer and questioning youth because it was deemed too political. The backlash was quiet but forceful enough to push me back in the closet for the next several years. My teenage self would have thrived at Open Art Space, if such a program had existed when I was younger. Although I wasn’t completely comfortable in my own skin, I would have benefitted from a space in which I could have built up my confidence and strength. It is true that LGBTQ teens are more accepted now than when I was in high school—however Open Art Space is a place where we aim to go way beyond acceptance. Acceptance alone is lazy, it’s passive, it’s begrudging. At OAS we aim higher. Let us celebrate, appreciate, and admire our LGBTQ teens, they are, as we have learned this past year, worthy of all those things and more.
Special thanks to Robert Gober, Roger Griffith, Andrew Rogers, Sue Kovach, Laura Neufeld, Wendy Woon, Francesca Rosenberg, Tali Petscheck, Néstor Pérez-Molière, Calder Zwicky, Kaitlyn Stubbs, and all of the participants who took part in the first season of Open Art Space. The new season of OAS will start on Thursday, September 22, please contact [email protected] for more information.