Teenage Artland: Denver Creative Community Hones Youth Programs

The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver models an inclusive and cool approach to engaging young creatives, as other arts organizations in the city follow its lead.
It's Saturday morning, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver's Teen Lounge smells like waffles.

In this elevated gallery on the museum's third floor, where photographs taken by young people from across metro Denver line the walls floor to ceiling, about a dozen young people have shown up for "Wake and Make," one in a series of interactive art-making events for teens only. Amid the hum of music and the smell of Eggos -- a "Wake and Make" staple -- participants chat happily as they transform chipped porcelain plates, kitschy 1970s-era paintings and other thrift store ephemera and found objects into works of art.

At a low table, Salaam Gonzales uses a paint pen to enhance a piece of secondhand wall art with thick lines and colors, symbols and graffiti-style lettering. He holds the piece up, inspects it and smiles.

"That looks really good," he says. "I like the way this is going."

Gonzales is a senior at Denver Online School and in his second semester as a Teen Ambassador in MCA Denver's teen program. Twice a week, he and seven other ambassadors meet to brainstorm programs and events that will appeal to their friends and peers: stuff like "Wake and Make" and weekly, drop-in Teen Nights. Though Gonzales doesn't consider himself to be a visual artist -- he's more of "an appreciator," and interested in fashion design -- when he learned about the Teen Ambassador program, he jumped.

"I heard about it through a friend, and it sounded amazing. I wanted to be in a museum all the time. And this is a good museum," he says. "I like the people who are here. You can come here and be creative. If I wasn't here, I would probably just be at home, or hanging out with friends. I wouldn't feel like I had somewhere to go."

Across the table from Gonzales, noodling on an old piece of decorative wood, Jess Brehny says the Teen Ambassador program helps her feel a part of Denver's cultural scene.

"We're able to create connections with each other and with artists," says Brehny, a video artist, painter and online student from Jefferson County. "And if we're inspired by art, we're inspired to make art."

Authentic and inclusiveOver the past few years, arts organizations across metro Denver have ramped up teen outreach.

Over the past few years, arts organizations across metro Denver have ramped up their outreach to teens, recognizing the need to build a constant pipeline of future patrons, especially as core supporters of traditional arts grow grayer every year.

Many major cultural institutions including the Denver Art Museum, Colorado Symphony and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts offer discounted or free tickets to young people. PlatteForum, Curious Theater Company, Youth on Record, Playground Ensemble -- whose director, Conrad Kehn, is advocate of "playing music with young people, not at them" -- and other local arts groups have programs that give teens a chance to create and share work in a serious, semi-professional setting.

But MCA Denver's effort in this area is the most substantial local example of how cultural organizations are responding in very intentional, smart ways to the talents and particularities of the 18-and-under set. MCA knows that teens are not just the patrons and makers of tomorrow, but a viable audience and pool of creativity and insight today.

It's an instinct that has proved correct. In 2013, with funding from the David & Laura Merage Foundation, MCA Denver made admission free for youth eighteen and under. Since then, attendance among those 13 to 18 has climbed nearly 350 percent. Outreach to younger people is part of MCA Denver's overall growth trajectory: Total admissions are up eight percent, outpacing national trends.

Beyond free admission, the nearly 9,000 youth who visited MCA Denver in 2016, including lots of kids from the suburbs, who are among the least likely to come downtown for arts experiences, have been drawn by clever, culturally resonant programs. Like "Drake Cakes," a cake decorating, hip-hop dance party that cross-pollinated MCA Denver's teen programs with its popular Black Sheep Friday series last March. Every Friday, the Teen Lounge hosts a free drop-in event where young people can connect, chill and, if they feel like it, create. The influence of young artists can be felt throughout the museum's busy event calendar: High school bands and DJs are invited to play parties and openings, for example, alongside more seasoned adult musicians.

This kind of from-the-source programming MCA Denver has been developed with the input, or at least the blessing, of teens themselves.

"It really is a question of inclusiveness," says Alex Jimenez, who leads the Teen Ambassadors as manager of programs at MCA Denver. "So often, these kinds of programs are designed by people who are not representative of the people the program is for. If it's to be authentic, it has to have their voices."

She adds, "When you think about how Denver is changing, it's a lot of breweries and restaurants, places that are not inclusive to young people. We strive to make this one of the premiere teen cultural spaces, and a place that has nothing to do with the promotion of drugs and alcohol."

Being true to the communityA young woman looks at the photographs on display in MCA Denver's Teen Lounge.

In addition to the Teen Ambassadors, every year, twelve young people in MCA Denver's Failure Lab internship work alongside museum staff to plan programs for their peers. Failure Lab -- so named because, as MCA Denver puts it, failure is always a possibility in the process of creative development -- is all about developing leadership rather than arts skills; students need only express an appreciation for artistic and creative endeavors as one criteria of their application to the program, which is competitive. A couple of times a year, Failure Lab interns co-create exhibitions with professional, adult artists; they also produce an annual Teen Art Show. (Applications for 2018 are now open and due May 8.) Currently, Nothing Nostalgic, a collection of work by teens, curated by Failure Lab students with artist George P. Perez, is on display in the museum's Open Shelf Library, around the corner from the wildly successful "Basquiat Before Basquiat" exhibition.

"We take teens seriously at MCA Denver," says Molly Nuanes, the lead Failure Lab instructor. "We want the museum to be a home away from home for teens -- to see art, to create and to have fun. We believe that there is a natural affinity between contemporary artists and teens; both see the world a bit differently, question established norms and push boundaries. We want to nurture and encourage this creative spirit in teens."

"Denver's arts and creative community is actually really small, and easy to tap into," says Jimenez. "We're teaching them that at a young age. You can go to the café, the bowling alley, talk to people, find out about their work. Collaborate with them and make things happen. That's how things tend to work in Denver. So many of my professional relationships start that way. We're giving them a chance to be part of that, right alongside all of the other creative people."

Jimenez started the Teen Ambassador program last August, when she was about a month into her new position at the museum. A former program director for PlatteForum, one of the city's leading youth arts organizations, Jimenez knew how to build a program that would engage young people in meaningful ways, in part by responding to the realities of their lives.

Ambassadors are paid a stipend for their time, and the program is scheduled to accommodate school and work schedules, which makes it more accessible for kids of lesser privilege. Paying Teen Ambassadors also models the idea that the work of creative people has value, just like any other professional skill.

"We as an institution respect that ideas are as valuable as something tangible, and we want to help set a precedent for these kids early, so that if they're going into creative fields, they know their worth," Jimenez says. "We also just give them this place that is meant to be true to our community."

Jess Brehny agrees that adults often get lots of things wrong when trying to connect with young people.

"Adults tend to really overdo it," she says. "When they try to come up with things they think will interest us, it's just not as genuine. We're the only ones who really know what we want."

This story is part of a series underwritten by Denver Arts & Venues.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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