How do you create a space for teens that supports engagement?
I’ll explore some of the ways I’ve been working towards that goal in Milwaukee through our Satellite High School Program, a series of gallery sessions that focus on art history and interpretation. All of the quotes are from teens who were in the program.
Respect your teens
“I liked being able to share my opinion and hearing others’ opinions to learn more—having other artists [i.e., other teens] that are helping you understand a concept.”
Before I share some specific examples of activities I’ve tried with my teens, here’s the big rule that I try to stick to whether I’m developing a program, leading an activity, or having a conversation with teens: respect them. When you respect someone, you’re showing them that their opinions, feelings, and talents are important and valued. In this way, programs become communities where we all learn together.
In the case of the Satellite program, which brought together teens from a number of different area schools, this respect-filled community transformed into a group where the teens—who often feel isolated in their own schools, where arts might not be a focus—could connect with peers from other schools, all of whom share their passion.
Music in the galleries
“I loved learning how to scratch records and the relationship between art and music, interpreting art through music and vice-versa.”
I invited two local urban music educators from the Peace Propaganda Project to choose a work of art in the Museum and facilitate a session where the teens wrote and mixed a track inspired by that work—right in the middle of the galleries, with turntables, speakers, bass and all. The teens had many levels of involvement they could choose from, from playing the keyboard to filming or sketching the event.
You can read more about this session here, and watch the video below.
Dance and art
“Never would I have thought that dance and art come hand in hand. I learned that I could be successful [even] with my foreign notion to it.”
Kelly Anderson, a local dancer and educator for DanceWorks, Inc., explored the relationship between dance and art with us.
For our stage, Kelly used Carl Andre’s 144 Pieces of Zinc (1967), one of the few artworks in the Museum visitors can touch. We did creative movement exercises on and around the squares as Kelly played different kinds of music. As we got more comfortable moving around together in a public space, we started to realize how similar the vocabulary of dance is to that of art, using terms like balance, foreground, and background, and also found it fascinating that both consider the audience/viewer.
Behind the scenes at the Museum
“[The Museum’s Security Coordinator] was amazing. I think I learned the most from him because I was amazed how a person like him has gone through so many things in life and still tries to manage them.”
One of the most powerful experiences was bringing different museum careers to light for the teens. I set up a series of Q&A sessions with Museum staff, where we met with our chief conservator, a curator, the visitor services director, a member of our marketing/communications staff, and a lead security officer. Students were able to connect the staff’s many different backgrounds—from science to police work to research to communication—with their own interests, and see that an arts career can take many forms beyond creating a work of art.
“I felt like I explored art most deeply during the Taryn Simon session. She uses themes that allow for deep discussion, and her work allowed us to share our opinions about things we don’t encounter every day.”
We also spent time simply (or not so simply, as our conversations often got pretty intense!) discussing works of art together. One was spending our hours together in the Museum’s temporary exhibition of Taryn Simon’s photographs.
“We chose a piece within her exhibit that we felt strongly about. It highlighted events occurring in the U.S. that were controversial and hidden from the public. It openly criticized the things we as a society have decided to turn the other cheek to.”
Individually, each wrote about why they were drawn to that work, their reaction in three words, and what they were still wondering about. Then they paired up and shared their thoughts with another student. Finally, we gathered as a group to think about the themes of Simon’s provocative photographs together. We even wrote a letter to Simon with our lingering questions.
“I appreciate art on a deeper level, choosing pieces of art and doing responses. There are many meanings, so much more information than I thought I could get out of it. It’s endless.”
For their final project, each teen chose one work of art in the Museum, researched it, formed an interpretation, and made a creative response to it to present it to our group as well as teens’ family, friends, and teachers, and Museum staff at a final celebration. Responses included a poem inspired by Robert Gober’s Untitled (1997), an original pop song performed in front of and inspired by Vik Muniz’ Wheat Field with Cypresses after Van Gogh, a Bible reading in front of Francesco Solimena’s Madonna and Child (ca. 1700), a painted reinterpretation of Jacobus Victors’ Poultry Park, a miniature Tara Donovan sculpture, and many others.
You can read more about the final projects and the program as a whole on this blog post, written by my intern.
“I enjoyed taking the time to appreciate the art. Having someone here to give thought provoking questions, a way to analyze art—before I had never appreciated analyzing art. I don’t think I need a docent now. I am more motivated and inspired to study a piece if it catches me.”
I find that the activities and techniques most successful with teens are highly participatory, conversation-driven, and cross-disciplinary, with different ways to communicate and engage, so that teens can feel comfortable both listening and contributing (whether their responses are spoken or written). So far, I’ve found from the teens that these kinds of activities foster their investment in the works of art and in the museum as a whole.
What do you think?
I would love to hear any thoughts you have on the activities I’ve tried above, or what you’ve done with teens in the galleries, so please comment on this post or follow me on Twitter @MAM_Chelsea You can also feel free to email me.
Finally, many thanks to Mar Dixon for inviting me to write this guest post on her great blog, and giving me the opportunity to highlight the work of these talented Milwaukee teens!
Resources on teens in museums
· Teen Educators Listserv hosted by the ICA Boston is a great forum for museum educators who work with young adults.
· The New York City Museum Teen Summit was founded by a group of teen museum interns in New York City in order to bring museums to more teens and vice versa.
Chelsea Emelie Kelly
School & Teacher Programs Manager
Milwaukee Art Museum