In a program that can serve as a model for cultural institutions, Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center actively engages teens, bringing thousands of them to the museum every year, according to this Wallace-commissioned feature article. The centerpiece is a 12-member teen council that organizes and promotes activities affecting every area of the museum, from performing arts to new media.


Hot Art Injection (Hold Still) artists, 1997

Artists and teens have an immediate connection because they are both actively engaged in asking questions about life and culture and in overturning the status quo.
- Kathy Halbreich, Director, Walker Art Center

Over and over again, we saw that they were successful when they chose what projects to work on.
- Christi Atkinson, Assistant Director, Teen Programs

Working on the 'zine gave us a lot of freedom within a structure and gave me confidence in my creative abilities. Not a lot of kids have the opportunity to make so many decisions.
- Leslie Dolland, former Teen Arts Council member

Before 1996, teenagers rarely crossed the threshold of the Walker Art Center unless on a school field trip. But by actively engaging young people and putting their interests at the center of its mission to diversify audience and increase participation, the renowned contemporary arts center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is attracting an unprecedented number of the under-21 set — nearly 10,000 of them in 1999, a 29-percent increase.

As part of a New Directions/New Audiences initiative that also targets low-income families and people of color, the Walker Art Center's teen program has become a national model for America's cultural institutions. It has also helped create a dramatic shift in the life of the Walker, compelling board members, staff and the surrounding community to turn its back on the conventional wisdom that teenage audiences are trouble waiting to happen.

"Most teens don't see museums as places they can call their own, but I believe that they are the ones who should get the most of what we do, most of the time," says the Walker's director Kathy Halbreich. "Artists and teens have an immediate connection, because they are both actively engaged in asking questions about life and culture and in overturning the status quo."

The centerpiece of the Walker's teen programming is the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC). WACTAC's 12 members, which come from various high schools and socioeconomic backgrounds throughout the Twin Cities, are selected by their peers and serve from one to four years. With the support of virtually all of the museum's departments and an annual budget of approximately $30,000, Walker's teens select, organize and promote programs that have made an impact on every area of the museum, from visual and performing arts to film and new media.

"Early on we realized that teens didn't want to be told what to do," explains Christi Atkinson, assistant director, Teen Programs. "And over and over again, we saw that they were successful when they did what they wanted."

Freedom with a Structure

Urban Messages Workshop with Artist-in-Residence, Barry McGee

Since the first WACTAC convened in 1996, the teens have met weekly to sponsor sold-out openings and performances, as well as workshops and residencies by such artists as painter Sue Coe, the Guerrilla Girls, hip-hop artist Michael Franti, choreographer-dancer Bill T. Jones and mural artist Barry McGee. Other programs have included exploring how gender is represented on the web with multi-media artist Robin Marks and creating original art based on selections from the Walker's collection with visual artist Glenn Ligon, whose work includes text along with African-American cultural and political imagery.

The teens also created Fig.12, a quarterly mini-magazine that features their original writing and art and promotes upcoming events they think will interest their peers. As well as providing an opportunity to work with a professional writer and to learn about the production process, Fig.12 is one of the places where such controversial subjects as drugs and violence have been explored, and where the teens have learned to balance artistic expression with censorship, audience and the business of art. But even as these thorny issues arise, the 'zine's circulation is growing and, with it, the museum's reputation among this target audience.

"The teens initially wanted to use images that wouldn't be acceptable in schools, which is where the bulk of the 'zines are distributed," says Atkinson. "The Walker provides a very safe place where they can express themselves freely and talk about things they're concerned with, but they still have to understand how their work is going to be received by their audiences."

"Working on the 'zine gave us a lot of freedom within a structure and gave me confidence in my creative abilities," says Leslie Dolland, who served on the WACTAC for three years and now attends Northwestern University in Chicago. "Not a lot of kids have the opportunity to make so many decisions. As long as it related to a museum event and wasn't offensive, it was wide open."

A Showcase For Teen Talent

Also wide open was the third-biennial Hot Art Injection exhibition of art created by teens, for which the WACTAC selected 75 photographs, paintings, sculptures, video and performance pieces from more than 1,000 submissions. The teens also installed the work, created and produced marketing materials and hosted the show, which opened to an audience of about 800 last June.

"We wanted to show that we're not just sitting around watching Britney Spears," says Josh Sovell, who also spent three years on the WACTAC and entered Wittier College in California fall 2001, with the goal of eventually landing a job in museum education. "Teens have a wide variety of talents and skills, and we wanted to show that we're putting them to good use."

The success of the Walker's teen programs, and of the entire New Directions/New Audiences initiative, sends an important message to the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul community about the museum's ability to increase the diversity of its audience. Community partnerships, a cornerstone of the initiative, have helped shape such other outreach efforts as "Free First Saturday" programs for families and young children; tours, bus service and free memberships for low-income area residents; and the annual Lake Street Cultural Festival.

Just how successful the Walker has been shows in the numbers. Attendance has risen 28 percent since 1993. Thirty-six percent of all visitors have household incomes of less than $25,000, and 15 percent of visitors are non-white, a number that eight years ago was too low to measure.

"We're bucking the notion that cultural institutions are elite, and we've seen how deeply our programs can touch the community," says Halbreich. "Opening doors and windows in one respect makes it easier to become diverse in others."

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