In “The Catcher in the Rye,” iconic 1950s teen Holden Caulfield said of the Museum of Natural History, “Everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. … Nobody’d be different.”
Ol’ Holden would have been knocked on his keister by a recent evening at Walker Art Center. In one half of the sun-drenched Garden Lounge, DJs blared house music for a freewheeling break-dance competition. On the other side, clusters of kids frantically tossed syrups and spices on bowls of popcorn for a “Pop to the Top” taste-test competition. Just down the stairs, others constructed arty maps and tried to coax giggles from one another in a “Make a Stranger Laugh” experiment.
It was all part of “Teen Takeover” night, planned and orchestrated by WACTAC, the Walker’s Teen Arts Council.
Art museums once were places for children to be seen, grudgingly, and heard, even less so. But thanks to recent efforts to woo them, the stereotype of the long-suffering teenager on a forced march, slouching past priceless sculptures and paintings with barely an eye roll in their direction, seems as antiquated as an Etruscan bust.
Beyond devoting development funds to youth education, museums are now handing teens the reins, at least part of the time, to plan peer- targeted events and serve as consultants on attracting their demographic.
Break-dancing bystander Hodan Ahmed, 17, was one of at least 500 teens who showed up for the Walker event.
“It’s very cultured here, but it feels so comfortable right now with all these people my age doing things,” she said. “You don’t feel like an outsider.”
Christina Alderman, who oversees WACTAC, said there are more cost-efficient ways to make people feel at home in a museum than time-intensive, high-resource teen programs, “but the best reason for doing them is that they change the institution for the better.
“They come up with ideas we don’t think of ourselves, like: It’s not about, ‘How do we bring art to the people?’ but, ‘How do we help people discover things about themselves through art?’ ”
In 1996, the Walker was the first major contemporary-art institution in the country to launch a teen advisory council that not only exposed members to its collections, but put them somewhat in charge.
Now many other museums across the country and beyond have followed suit with programs that build life skills along with cultural knowledge. The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver has its “Failure Lab,” so named to encourage the concept of failure as an important part of creativity, not something to fear. The Tate Modern in London based its “Raw Canvas” teen program on the Walker model.
The Walker is one of four contemporary-art institutions participating in a study about the long-term impact of such programs, involving 600 alumni now in their 20s and 30s.
“What they learn translates into a lifelong relationship with art,” said Danielle Linzer, who manages community programs for the Whitney Museum in New York and heads up the study, to be completed this fall. “But it also opens a lot of academic and professional pathways.”
Alumni of WACTAC can attest to that. Kate McDonald, 26, now a producer at Twin Cities Public Television, said that what stood out for her was the autonomy the council was granted in designing programs and events.
“They trusted us to know what was best as far as what teens want to see and do,” she said.
Ashley Fairbanks, 27, is a City Council policy aide for Minneapolis’ Ninth Ward. She remains active in the arts, designing museum exhibitions on the side and serving as vice chairwoman of the board of the Art Shanties Project. But the most lasting contribution the council has given her, she said, is “teaching us our voices were just as valuable as anyone else’s in the room, and that it’s the people who show up and sit down at the table who get to make the decisions. Being involved gives you power.”
The Whitney Museum’s Linzer said that contemporary artists are particularly simpatico with teen mind-sets.
“It’s that spirit of questioning, of being provocative and irreverent, that specifically appeals to a certain kind of young person who isn’t thriving in traditional educational venues. It’s rewarding for them to be in a place where thinking differently is valued.”
Calder Zwicky, 33, was so inspired by his experience with the first WACTAC that he now runs teen programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“Museums are an amazing alternative environment for kids to learn in,” he said. “I was checked out in high school, just sitting in a classroom listening to someone talk, but when I saw all these artists tackling the same issues subjectively, that’s what I responded to.”
Open mic, open minds
On a Thursday night at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ red-walled reception hall in the Target Wing, the crowd was thin, due to an early-spring snowstorm. But the 35 or so who made it to the “Rated T” event (usual crowd: 200) downed Joia sodas and messed with redecorating 1980s album covers and letter-pressing — this night’s theme was the art of words — as they waited for open mic to start.
Members get paid $7.25 an hour to act as hosts on the museum’s Family Days. They also help plan the Institute’s new biannual “Rated T” teen events, begun last fall.
Young poets from the spoken-word collective TruArtSpeaks read original work on themes such as mother-daughter relationships and systematic oppression. Nesani Sabal, 15, a student at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, adorned an old Paula Abdul “Forever Your Girl” cover with stickers and the words “Feed Me Pizza.” Asked why she likes spending time wandering vast halls filled with very old artwork, she said, “I like that they have vintage stuff. It’s a part of history. These are artifacts you can’t see in your back yard.” She finds the staff “friendly. They don’t look away like you’re not supposed to be here.”
“It’s an experiment,” said Katie Hill, who oversees audience engagement for the MIA. “They’re involved in crafting the look and feel of each event. When they see their work in action, they feel a real ownership. It also helps us push our boundaries.”
International fashion connection
Other types of museums are also investing in programs with teen appeal.
The Minnesota History Center launched a teen advisory council in 2010, funded through Legacy money. Over the past six months, members have worked on a project via Skype with a group of Palestinian teens, with both groups designing and making traditional fashions that played a part in shaping cultural identity, based on research and consultations with experts. The Minnesota teens went to Israel in April, and this month their counterparts will visit here.
“We have a strong foothold with younger kids and middle-schoolers, but then we kind of lose them until they’re older,” spokeswoman Jessica Kohen said. “We’re working to fill that gap between grade six and pre-retiree.”
Whether youth-targeted activities will translate into appreciation for a museum’s collections is hard to gauge. At the Walker’s teen event, held on a “free Thursday” night that also attracts adult crowds, there weren’t many under-20s wandering the galleries.
The drawings of Edward Hopper face an uphill battle against break dancing and chili popcorn. But the Walker’s Alderman said the primary goal is just getting teens to walk in the door and feel at home.
“They usually do go exploring at some point,” she said. “Sometimes just to get away from me and the other adults.”