Profound Choice: On Balancing Access, Advocacy + Exposure to the Arts

Years ago I was running a partnership program within a secure juvenile detention facility located in the South Bronx, bringing in reproductions of artwork along with as many court-approved materials as possible for our studio projects. (My first attempt at a collage-based workshop was scrapped when I naively failed to realize that, of course, scissors and Xacto blades weren’t allowed inside.) My workshops there seemed to be pretty successful, leading a series of freeform discussions about different pieces from our collection, exposing young people (almost always for the first time) to a selection of artwork by Kara Walker, Andrew Wyeth, Frida Kahlo, Jacob Lawrence, and others. But during each session there was, without fail, one or two people who refused to participate—someone’s head would go down onto a tabletop, someone else would refuse to answer any of our conversation prompts. It wasn’t a big deal at all, but I did bring it up with one of our partners at the center—was there something that I could be doing differently to capture the imagination of everyone in the class? Could I bring in a different selection ofartworks, or connect the discussions to more pertinent themes?

The partner, a librarian, told me to imagine the day that these young men endured prior to my arrival—being told when to wake up, when to eat, where to stand, what to say and do at almost every moment. Sometimes, she said, the only real power that a person has in that moment is to say No. It was a simple but powerful reframing of my role as an artist within this situation—the goal of my time there shouldn’t be to get everyone to fall in love with the art that I’m showing them. I’m not a missionary for the museum, and they’re not an audience to be converted. Regardless of my own feelings about the beauty and power of the artwork I was bringing in—I was just there to give people the resources and the information to make these decisions for themselves. Our fear shouldn’t be that our participants might reject our projects or the artwork that we’re bringing them into contact with. Our fear should be that, in the unjust and unequal climate surrounding today’s educational and artistic landscapes, young people aren’t even being given the chance to make these decisions for themselves.

Not to draw too direct of a connection between the participants from this detention center and the (primarily public school) students who apply for our free teen art courses each season—but the question of basic access to art and art materials remains a key aspect of the programs that we provide for teens. Without access to introductory experiences the ability to choose for oneself, to make an informed and empowering decision about one’s future, is removed. In 2014 (just as our current cohort of high school-aged participants were attending junior high or in the process of leaving elementary school) 22% of public middle schools and 38% of public elementary schools across NYC lacked even a single full-time certified art teacher.[1] Of these schools without full-time art teachers, nearly half were located within Central Brooklyn or the South Bronx—the very same neighborhood that the juvenile detention center was located within.

Too often, when asked to provide examples of successful experiences coming out of teen arts programs, my initial reaction is to tell the stories of young people who leave our institutions and go on to become artists, art students, or employees at museums and galleries. The young man who signed up for his first art course here, and who now works full-time for one of the most famous contemporary artists in the world. The teen who fudged her age on her application in order to take classes earlier than she was eligible, who now works as an educator for one of NYC’s most prestigious art museums. As someone who went through museum programs myself when I was a teen, and who now works with these same audiences as a direct result, framing our programs as pathways towards careers (or being a bit more poetic about it, lives) within the arts can seem like the surest and clearest way to show the direct and lasting impacts our programs have on young people’s futures. But is the goal of our programs to really turn the young participants into future art students, curators, museum staff, and artists? And if that’s not the true goal, why do I so often fall back on these examples as proof of the importance of what we do? By continually highlighting the narratives of young people who move through our programs and into lifelong careers within the arts, do we place undue pressure on our programs to accomplish more than we’re truly interested in accomplishing?

I know the impact that the arts have had on my life, and the immense joy and expansive understanding it has brought to my development as a person. And, yes, it can be somewhat difficult to describe the faith that I have in the power of art without slipping into a sort of religious terminology. There are times during our programs when we sometimes feel a zealousness to convert the group we’re working with into experiencing these joys right alongside of us, when we should instead perhaps dial-back our eagerness a bit and not oversell the power of whatever it is that we’ve each experienced within these museums, galleries, and art spaces. We’re not there to push the importance and value of the artwork in our collection down someone else’s throat, or to impress upon them the supremacy of a specific artist’s vision. We will always have pride in the young people who come through our programs and continue along in the arts, and we will advocate for the importance of making the arts a continued part of everyone’s lives. Not as missionaries or as advertisers for our institutions, but as agents of access—presenting as true a picture of these issues as we can. Because the truer a picture we present as to what a “life in the arts” actually is, the more informed and accurately our audiences can make these profound choices for themselves.

[1] State of the Arts: A Plan to Boost Arts Education in New York City Schools. Office of the New York City Comptroller. 2014.

2 responses to “Profound Choice: On Balancing Access, Advocacy + Exposure to the Arts”

  1. Kathleen Wentrack says:

    I value the experiences you described in your essay. I would like to add that any experience with art that we give our students, no matter the level, does not need to lead to a career in the arts. Exposure to art, to objects made by people from different places with different experiences, backgrounds, and ethnicities, can help one understand another’s experiences. That is perhaps even more important than grooming a person to work in the arts.

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