Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Long-Term Impacts of Teen Programs in Art Museums

Recently, a New York Times opinion article cited statistics from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation of the Arts. The article (“How the Rich Are Hurting the Museums They Fund,” July 22, 2016) noted that between 2002 and 2012, “adult attendance at art museums and galleries declined, by as much as 30 percent.”

In case you want to know the exact numbers as reported by our survey, 26.5 percent of adults in 2002 reported having attended an art museum or gallery in the preceding 12 months. In 2012, that figure was 21.0 percent, a decline of 5.5 percentage points over ten years. For the “30 percent” figure quoted in the article, Davis was referring to the ten-year change in the average number of visits that the U.S. adult population made to art museums in galleries in the past year. (That is, 3.5 visits averaged in 2002, versus 2.7 visits averaged in 2012.)

No matter how you look at the data, there has been a steady decrease in attendance at art museums or galleries since 2002. In the wake of such declines, arts professionals are left wondering how museums can better serve their missions at a time when Americans—notably the young; notably through digital media—are accustomed to highly interactive ways of experiencing and expressing art.

Fortunately, when it comes to youth programming, many art museums have been creating dynamic and interactive arts experiences for decades. Educators have been bringing youth into museum spaces, empowering them to become more actively engaged members of the museum community, to voice original ideas and to share them within a larger community. The Walker Art Center, for example, seeks through its teen programs to “provide and co-create platforms and resources with young people to safely ask complex questions, voice ideas and opinions, and explore critical and creative potential.” Composed of high school student-artists and art enthusiasts, a diverse council meets weekly to plan programs displaying contemporary art for teenagers and young adults.

Similarly, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) offers a one-year, paid internship for high school juniors and seniors to learn first-hand about the museum, contemporary art, artists, and other creative careers. And Youth Insights (YI) at the Whitney Museum of American Art gives teens unfettered access to art, artists, and the museum through semester-long programs to navigate and discuss the Whitney's collections and exhibitions.

These teen programs, along with the Contemporary Arts Museum—Houston Teen Council, have been showcased in a research and evaluation initiative examining the long-term impacts of intensive teen programs in contemporary art museums. Launched in 2011 with support from a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the study culminated in the late 2015 release of a landmark report, Room to Rise: The Lasting Impact of Intensive Teen Programs in Art Museums.

The report, in turn, was presented in April at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, held in Washington, DC. At the core of this mixed-methods study design was an online survey of alumni from teen programs at these four art museums. The survey sought information about the alumni’s academic and career paths, their current levels of arts participation, and their perceptions of the programs’ influence on a variety of personal development traits such as leadership, social capital, identity formation, and cultural literacy. Complementing the survey data were focus group interviews with alumni from different ages and backgrounds. The interviews captured alumni’s memories of their time in the museum program and their thoughts about how the experience affected them. Case studies delved deeper into the life experiences of selected alumni, using arts-based methods to collect in visual, nonlinear ways (photo journals, journey maps) their perceptions of how participation in museums’ teen programs influenced their lives.

The study’s headline: program participants reported that their experiences as teens in museums were transformational and shaped their adult lives in significant ways, including cultivating a lifelong relationship with museums and the arts. Eighty-four percent of participants responding to the survey shared that they had visited their program’s museum in the past two years, with 30 percent returning to the museum five or more times during that period. Sixty-eight percent had visited other art museums five or more times.

These visitation rates are dramatically higher than those reported in the NEA’s 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. While the Room to Rise study was not designed to attribute causality for reported effects, investigation through case studies and focus groups found that alumni often attribute their current engagement with museums to their teen program experiences, even decades later. One former participant said that the Whitney’s Youth Insights program “helped change the way I feel about museums and their value. I went from being the kind of kid who would never go on his own volition to visiting the museum on some of my off-days and bringing friends along with me.”

Common strategies of these teen programs in museum settings include: ensuring peer diversity as a key part of the selection criteria; facilitating sustained engagement with teens and their peers, staff, and the museum; providing supportive staff mentors; connecting teens with contemporary art and artists; and engaging teens in authentic work that makes an impact on the museum’s community. Although these strategies required intensive programmatic work by the four museums, Room to Rise suggests that these investments have paid off handsomely, at least for the participating teenagers.

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