Art museums, as well as other cultural institutions, have always bemoaned how hard it is to attract a teenage audience. Today they are still seen as the missing link: they are too old to want to visit museums with their family and too young to do so as young adults.
Departments of education and of museum activities bend over backwards to provide them with activities they might be interested in. It is hard to get it right, even if the activities are free and have an appearance which is suited to youngsters.
The problem, however, does not lie with the teenagers. Teenagers who, lost in their rebellious phase against the adult world, do not see the museum as an interesting space. The problem is that museums offer them experiences within a hierarchical structure – just as they have at school or at home – at a time when they need new role models and are trying to discover their own identities.
In this article I will analyse reports from four successful cases that could help to push forward new programmes for teenagers in our art museums.
Spaces to grow and which give a voice to teenagers
In 2015, four contemporary art museums in the USA joined forces to assess the impact of their programmes for teenagers, which had been operating continuously since the 1990s. This study, entitled Room To Rise. The Lasting Impact of Intensive Teen Programs in Art Museums  To obtain quantitative and qualitative information of the contexts and impacts, surveys were carried out with ex-students, meetings with focus groups, case studies, analyses of daily graphics and in-depth interviews, over two years. It is a thorough study that is worth consulting, both for its design and for its results., analysed the following programmes:
- Young Insights, Whitney Museum of American Art (New York)
- Teen Arts Council, Walker Art Center (Minneapolis)
- Teen Council, CAMH (Houston)
- Teen Program, MOCA (Los Angeles)
The aim of the study was to validate, after twenty years, two intuitions shared by the four institutions: on the one hand, the programmes sparked a vital transformation in the youngsters who participated, and on the other, they created positive changes in those same institutions.
The common thread in these four programmes, is firstly the commitment of the institutions and their involvement at different levels, and secondly the central role they give the teenagers. The young participants – who visit the museum on a weekly basis during the course, which is of between one and three years – collaborate in an active, meaningful and visible way in the museum’s programming.
The specific projects varied according to the museum, or from one year to the other, but all of them included tasks that culminated in a project or an event that is temporarily organised within the framework of the institution.
Furthermore, in all these intensive programmes, the youngsters have the opportunity to get to know and work with the artists and creatives. This has a particularly significant impact on the participants, not only because the creatives pass on their passion for art, and make it more accessible, but also because through their way of seeing and thinking about the world, they become a role model at a time of big change.
Through the activities developed in the museum – which include giving guided tours to other groups of teenagers, event planning, curating an exhibition or publishing a fanzine – the youngsters gained experience in problem solving, working towards goals, motivating their peers, articulating complex and abstract ideas, activating critical and creative thinking and taking part in investigations about the world that surrounds them. They also acquire cross-sectional skills, such as how to plan an event, or speak in public, as well as artistic and teaching techniques.
And most importantly: the surveys revealed that 95 % of the ex-students surveyed saw the Teen Programs as a very good experience (40 %) or, remarkably, one of the most important experiences of their lives (55 %).
A shared strategy
These four immersive community programmes are based on 5 key pillars, which are especially effective within the framework of contemporary art museums:
- Look after the socio-cultural diversity of the group (racial, ethnic, socio-economic and educational).
- Guarantee a constant participation between the group and the museum staff.
- Enable genuine, worthwhile work to be carried out for the museum.
- To facilitate interaction with artists and creatives.
- To make support mentors available for them at the museum.
[* Diagram taken from the study Room to Rise]
The impact of the programmes on the young participants
The impacts of this type of programme are, to a large extent, intangible and hard to quantify for whoever needs to explain them in numbers. However, the design and thoroughness of the study allowed an understanding of the areas in which these initiatives had a more meaningful long-term influence for young people. They can be summarised in the following five points:
- A growth in self-confidence, the emergence of personal identity and the understanding of oneself.
- A deep and long-lasting relationship with museums and culture.
- Intellectual research and curiosity for widening professional horizons and personal capabilities.
- A vision of the world which is rooted in art.
- A commitment to citizen participation and identity.
The impact of the programmes on the museums
The study also placed a spotlight on the positive impact of these programmes with young people, on the culture of the museum. Giving a voice to teenagers, allowing them the autonomy to create programmes for other teenagers and giving them the freedom to experiment has proven to have secondary effects that revitalise the institution, such as, for example:
- Incorporating new perspectives: museums learn from the energy, ideas and creative spirit of the youngsters.
- For teenagers, with teenagers: the teenagers develop and present (more effectively than the adults) programmes which attract other teenagers.
- Taking risks: the teenagers drive the institution towards a culture of innovation, something that requires a genuine commitment to experimentation and the trust of the cultural centre.
- Small numbers, large impact: limiting the size of the groups – even though it makes it harder when looking for private funding or in justifying costs – it intensifies the long-term impact. The teenagers need small groups where they feel confident and can unleash their full potential, and many people can benefit from this indirectly.
- A positive perception of teenagers as visitors.
- Diversification of new audiences: it allows the institution to convey a spirit of openness towards non-traditional visitors.
It’s pretty fantastic to see how these individuals become creative influencers in their communities. But they’re also committed to helping youth and helping shape museum programs. It’s not just what happens to the participants and their impact, but from year to year, a group of 16 WACTAC teens influences programming for 20,000 teens in the community – Olga Viso, Walker Art Center Director
Teenagers and museums don’t repel each other like oil and water; it is the opposite. Contemporary art museums are the perfect spaces for asking questions, experimenting and expressing oneself freely, in a place without a regulated code of conduct. Museums, however, must lose their fear and learn to give teenagers a voice, actively listening to them and offering them a space to grow.
Until recently, educational programmes for teenagers were almost non-existent. They were seen as the missing link of museum visitors. Most likely their focus was not the right one. What the experiences of these four museums have taught us, and what the study shows, is that by placing teenagers at the centre, empowering them to develop a critical eye, a valuable social and emotional long-term impact is created, that must not be lost.