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The Kids Are Alright: Teen Engagement and the Walker

By Paul Schmelzer

For many of us, if we trace the events of our lives backwards, we don’t necessarily find one moment that changed our trajectory—but Calder Zwicky can, at least for one aspect of his life. He credits a high school art class at the Walker with putting him on a path that took him, among other places, to Russia, where late last month he gave the keynote address at an art conference in St. Petersburg. The topic: his work with teens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“I wasn’t the worst student in the world, but I definitely wasn’t engaged in school,” Zwicky, 31, recalls of his early years at Minneapolis’ South High. “At all.”

“I had no connection to the community and no interest in high school,” he remembers, noting that girlfriends and parties were top priorities. He describes himself as a creative kid, but says even his art classes—including one run by an ex-cop who was more interested in discipline than creativity—weren’t inspiring him.

Then came the “revelation.” He signed up for a free class that involved weekly trips to the Walker. Zwicky enjoyed the assignments and the staff and, most of all, dug in and made art. “Every week, I did more than was expected and turned in these crazy art projects. For the first time for me, the class was more important than the socializing and the friends.”

Sparked by the experience, Zwicky joined the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) in 1996, the inaugural year of the program, which is the first of its kind anywhere. The diverse group of teenagers from around the Twin Cities gathers weekly to meet with visiting artists, including Dosh, Paul Chan, Kara Walker, Barry McGee, and—just last week—British designer Anthony Burrill. They’ve also done a range of projects from making zines and advising museum staff on communicating with teen audiences to putting on events for teenagers, such as Hot Art Injection, an exhibition of high school art organized entirely by WACTAC.

It wasn’t only the art that fired him up, but also the way the Teen Programs staff, then led by Christi Atkinson, treated WACTAC members: listening to them, respecting their opinions, giving them responsibilities, and holding them accountable.

At MoMA, where he’s associate educator in Teen and Community Programs, Zwicky wrote last year of the Walker, “If it hadn’t been for a museum’s commitment to community outreach, and its desire to create worthwhile programming for teens, I can say that I have literally no idea where I would be today.”

The impact of WACTAC on the lives of its participants can be profound. Former members now work in museums or at galleries or their own art studios, although some past members laud the program for its effects on their lives outside the realm of art.

Art Careers and Beyond

Like Zwicky, Natilee Harren gives plenty of credit to WACTAC for its part in influencing where she is today. “My first exposure to contemporary art was 100 percent through WACTAC,” she says.

A teen council member during the 2000–2001 school year, she’ll be graduating from UCLA in 2012 with her PhD in modern and contemporary art history and critical theory. For her postdoctoral project, she’s focusing on the 1960s Fluxus movement, an art-historical moment well represented in the Walker’s collection.

“What impressed me most was that we were treated as staff and given responsibilities as such. I really felt like we were regarded as colleagues,” she recalls of her time in WACTAC. “Based on that experience, I decided I wanted my life and career to be like that—surrounded by intelligent, creative, fun people.”

These days it is. In 2005, Harren curated her first project, based in part on her WACTAC experiences with artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, whose residency included workshops on building micro-radio transmitters in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Her Trans-Siberian Radio Project consisted of an exhibition and a micro-radio station broadcasting from a train bound from Moscow to Beijing. She was living in Houston at the time, where, like Zwicky (who helped launch the Bronx Museum of Art’s teen council), Harren helped the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston launch its own teen council.

Similarly, Emmanuel Mauleón, who’ll be graduating with a BFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design next year, says, “I have to credit my experience with WACTAC to making me interested in contemporary art, period.”

Raised in a single-parent household, his family didn’t have time or money for art, he remembers, which meant the breadth of his art experience involved dabbling in graffiti. A former WACTAC member, Alex Smith, recommended him for the council, and he was involved from 2003 through 2006. The following year, he returned for a two-year stint as a Teen Programs intern.

He, too, remembers the Allora and Calzadilla residency with fondness. “Looking back on it now, I still can’t wrap my head around how amazing an experience it was,” he says. “Instead of studying arts from a distance, WACTAC involved me in the decision-making process, in the creation of art projects, curation, and the bureaucratic logistics of putting on shows. My arts education was completely immersive.”

He jokes that the serious moments at WACTAC meetings “sometimes rivaled the fun ones,” remembering how meetings would occasionally devolve into a screening of “top YouTube videos,” before former Teen Programs manager Witt Siasoco would get things back on track, often for “a good hours-long discussion about art.”

For MCAD student Luke Tromiczak, art was the key, too, but in an inverse way: his exposure to contemporary art solidified his interest in what he calls the “contemporary possibilities of figurative painting.” Part of WACTAC from 2002 to 2004, he notes, “There’s a certain aesthetic tendency that I can’t get on board with in a lot of contemporary work, and that just pushed me further into trying to explore traditional and figurative painting.”

He appreciated how WACTAC, which he characterizes as “a bunch of people from fairly diverse backgrounds in a room together making decisions,” gave its members control: “Allowing kids at that age to have agency and ability to affect programs within an institution that seems like it might be difficult to approach otherwise is incredibly empowering for everybody involved.”

That’s built in to the program. “The aim of WACTAC isn’t to create a new generation of artists or art audiences,” says Teen Programs manager Adriana Rimpel. “My goal is that participants develop their creative problem-solving, artistic, and collaborative skills, while increasing their self-confidence, knowledge of the arts, and civic contribution. This program holds teens to a high standard and supports and believes that they can reach their goals.”

A more recent alum, Nakami Tongrit-Green (WACTAC 2009–2010), has integrated art into her college experiences at Tufts University. As she pursues studies in either pre-med or child development, she’s aware of the impact her art experiences play in her life: she’s musical director of the a cappella group Essence and sings in the Tufts gospel choir; she’s also a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital in Boston and is involved with the campus literary magazine.

Tongrit-Green says exposure to a diversity of artists and processes has influenced all of these endeavors. “The overall message that I got about the artistic process is that there is nothing set in stone,” she says. “It broadened my horizons, and even though I’m not a visual artist, I find myself drawing sometimes for inspiration … or even taking pieces of my prose writing as a starting point for my music.”

She values how exposure to art has shaped other aspects of her life. “I think that to understand art certainly gives you an edge in understanding the world and the human experience,” she says. “There’s a way in which art cuts to the chase about life. Just by listening to a song, or looking at a photograph, suddenly you can gain such an understanding about an experience or an emotion. I think understanding and appreciation for art can go along way, especially for young adults.”

Quantifying the Impact

Stories such as Zwicky’s and Tongrit-Green’s, Mauleón’s and Harren’s, offer ample anecdotal evidence of the success of the teen council model, which the Walker pioneered 15 years ago, sparking programs across the country and, as Zwicky’s St. Petersburg trip shows, around the world.

But as the Walker’s Teen Programs staff stays focused on the future of the program—they’re launching a Teen Art Lounge in January, and holding a symposium this spring to plan ways to enhance the Walker’s teen offerings—they’re also looking back to quantify the effects of their work and follow WACTAC alumni over the years.

Through 2010 funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the Walker is launching a robust WACTAC alumni network, tracking where former members are and what they’re doing. The information will also be used to help plan twice-a-year reunions, as they’ve done for years.

In addition, Walker educators are partnering with museum colleagues across the country to study the long-term impact of their programs. The three-year research project is being conducted with the Walker, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Recently, Rimpel and Sarah Schultz, director of education and community programs, visited New York to continue the discussion with their research partners. The project, which runs through September 2014, aims to be the first national, in-depth inquiry into ways that teen programs impact participants later in life and influence their connections to art, their intellectual development, and their preparedness for adulthood.

Words by past WACTAC members give Walker staffers hope for the outcomes of the just-launched study. “Our culture tends to view the teenage years as an extension of childhood rather than the beginning of adulthood,” says Harren. “But if you give young people opportunities to experience the responsibilities, challenges, and joys of organizing and working with communities, they will sooner rise to the challenge and enter adult life feeling empowered as active citizens.”

Kate McDonald and Ricardo Ortiz, members of WACTAC 2006

Calder Zwicky

A T-shirt created by WACTAC

Still available for sale at the Walker Shop, Calder Zwicky designed this “Boring and Non-Offensive” shirt when a member of the teen council.

WACTAC members, including Emmanuel Mauleón, work with artist Jennifer Allora, 2004

A scene from Don’t Sleep On It, a 2009 24-hour art-making marathon organized by WACTAC

WACTAC 2004, including Emmanuel Mauleón (top center) and Luke Tromiczak (top right)

Nakami Tongrit-Green performing at a 2009 WACTAC event

Members of WACTAC 2011, with teen programs manager Adriana Rimpel (lower right)