Teen Art Council members serve as community ambassadors for NOMA

Members with artists Fred Wilson (front center) and Ron Bechet (far right) in November 2019.

As the Youth Programs Coordinator, I am privileged to experience a lesser-known side of our museum and its spaces. On an ordinary Thursday, the Woldenberg Board Room, tucked behind the galleries and overlooking the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, may host conversations about acquisitions, loan requests, or exhibition calendars among NOMA staff and trustees. After five, the same table and chairs hold sketchbooks and backpacks. The room is lit pink or blue or green by a glowing orb and filled with chatter as members of the Teen Art Council make the space theirs. 

“It doesn’t necessarily feel like a space for teens or kids,” member Kayla Andrus reflects on first coming to know the museum,  “…of course the museum is there to go with friends or on your own, but it’s different to be invited in”. The Teen Art Council (formerly known as Teen Squad) is a collective of creative teens from across the city who serve as youth ambassadors for NOMA. The TAC’s presence and mission concretizes this invitation, extending a hand to the youth population of our city.

The program is built upon three main pillars: creative skill building, inquiry, and expression. Members meet weekly during the school year to engage in discussions about artworks in the galleries, participate in workshops with visiting and local artists, and collaborate with partner organizations in the community. The teens work closely with museum staff to conceptualize, develop, and run programming for teen audiences, such as NOMA’s very first Teen Night held in March of this year—an evening of artmaking, music, and activities designed by and for teens. Through their work, the group is encouraged to grow both personally and professionally, while exploring possible futures in the museum field among like-minded peers. 

The group’s name change this year reflects an alignment with a larger network of intensive teen programs in art museums nationwide. Leading institutions in the field like the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Contemporary Art Museum Houston have been home to trailblazing and deeply impactful teen programs since the 1990’s. Program alumni credit their participation in these programs with the cultivation of lifelong friendships, long-lasting connections with museums and the arts, and leadership roles in their communities.

 As I imagine any adult who knows a teenager, or who recalls their own teenage years can attest, teens have an eye for truth, a keen perception of the world’s challenges and limitations, and an aptitude for asking the tough questions. With a love for museums and the arts comes critique—a devotion and responsibility to advocate change for the better. Who is welcome in this space? Who is this museum for? My role as the teaching artist and educator for the Teen Art Council grounds me, reminding me weekly of the eye-opening and transformative power of an art experience. As a museum educator, it is essential to create opportunities for these experiences and connections to take place, to extend an invitation to the members of the community to whom this museum belongs.

From witnessing a teen’s first-ever visit to an art museum as he embarks on a scavenger hunt in the galleries, to discussing NOMA site-specific panoramic installation Passage and decorating cookies with the brilliant visiting artist Regina Agu, to romping through the Sculpture Garden in costume to capture soul-bearing self portraits, working with the teens this year has served as a constant reminder to live joyfully, creatively, and courageously. Similarly, as an institution, the Teen Art Council challenges our assumptions, helps us experience our museum through the youth perspective, and holds us accountable for building a vibrant and more equitable future. 

Danielle Rives, Youth Programs Coordinator