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“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.”
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046