Community Teens Remix a National Art Museum in DC

December 03, 2014
By Educator Innovator

You wouldn’t necessarily expect the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—an arm of the Smithsonian Institution—to be a teen hangout spot. Museums have a reputation for attracting a very different kind of crowd—older, for one, according to museum consultant Nina Simon in “The Participatory Museum.” But museums like the Hirshhorn are reaching out to young people—with benefits for the museum and far beyond.

Situated behind the Hirshhorn is ARTLAB+, a free digital arts studio for teens that opened in 2010. ARTLAB+, a member of the YOUMedia Network, an Educator Innovator partner, describes itself as a “radically inclusive space”—one where teens can explore their interests and values in a welcoming environment.

In honor of the Hirshhorn’s 40th anniversary, ARTLAB+ has created seven weeks of teen programming that challenges traditional ideas of what museums are all about.

Rather than ushering teens through the exhibits and essentially telling them how to think about art, the staff at ARTLAB+ are engaging teens in deeper ways. They’re inviting teens to interact with the museum’s collection and create art in response to and inspired by the works on view. The goal is to allow teens to feel what it’s like to be both critical consumers and innovative creators.

As a museum that focuses on contemporary art, the Hirshhorn is well positioned to reach teens. “There’s this great opportunity to be able to speak to the issues of our time,” said Ryan Hill, the Hirshhorn’s director of digital learning and ARTLAB+. Contemporary artists often deal with subjects like identity, sexuality, gender, race, and class—many of the same issues teens grapple with as they try to make their place in the world.

In general, making art can be an antidote to youth disengagement and apathy. “The artistic process is the process of thinking critically about what you’re doing,” Hill said. According to the National Guild for Community Arts Education’s guide to engaging adolescents, that process helps young people solve problems, express themselves, develop confidence, and become more civically engaged.

Like its regular programming, ARTLAB+ programming for the Hirshhorn’s anniversary encourages teens to flex their artistic muscles through various mediums. On Photo Design Tuesdays, for example, teens study pictures of the Hirshhorn and the surrounding area. The hook is that the pictures were taken in the 1970s. The task for teens is to take corresponding photographs matching the original photos’ perspectives, compositions, and lighting as closely as possible. The exercise also turns their attention to how the area has changed over the years.

Certain days of the week are more hi-tech. On Game Design Wednesday, teens curate virtual galleries—and they walk through them using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. “It’s a real entry point into a technology we’re going to see more and more of in the future,” Hill said.

Along with giving teens the opportunity to respond to the Hirshhorn’s works, ARTLAB+ workshops meet a serious need by helping them build their social capital with digital media. Many of ARTLAB+ regulars come from Ward 8, an under-resourced, high-poverty area in southeastern Washington, D.C. Research by the Web Use Project at Northwestern University found that among college-age web users, “those with higher levels of education and of a more resource-rich background use the Web for more ‘capital-enhancing’ activities”—in other words, activities that might lead to more informed political participation, career advancement, or better knowledge of financial and health services.

ARTLAB+ strives to empower teens by helping them master digital tools through art—and helping them use those tools to advance themselves both educationally and professionally. When the teens get excited about certain technologies (whether digital single-lens reflex cameras, green screens, or 3D-design software), Hill and his colleagues find opportunities for them to use those tools in the real world, where they can get credit or get paid. In that way, the Hirshhorn is not only helping teens see their future, but is seeding communities like Ward 8 with human capital and creativity. Thought not itself located in Ward 8, in some ways, the Hirshhorn could be thought of as fostering a form of “creative placemaking”—revitalizing a neighborhood through creative talents just as projects like Project Row Houses in Houston and Theaster Gates’s work in Chicago do.

As Hill described it, by connecting teens with these opportunities, ARTLAB+ helps ensure that one privileged group of people isn’t “always having the technology and always making the stuff.”

By Barbara Ray and Maya Itah 

Photo courtesy of ARTLAB+/ Jane Drozd