Contemporary art, teens can co-exist

By Alex Jen, JCampLive reporter

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Saloon doors creak on the fourth floor of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston as people walk in and out of a room lit by a lightbulb. A large denim tapestry hangs in the next gallery. A white brass chain spiderweb stretches across a pile of dirty clothing in a corner.

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Meanwhile, a girl dances on a stage overlooking the Boston Harbor and a boy works on a speech. It’s all preparation for the ICA’s National Convening for Teens in the Arts, a nationwide conference started in 2009 to discuss the next step in preserving the arts.

“Art museums are aging out institutions, the average demographic of a museum visitor is a 65-year-old college-educated white woman, and that’s not sustainable for an arts community,” said Gabrielle Wyrick, the ICA’s associate director of education. “Studies show that the average 21-30 year old visits an art museum an average of once every three years.”

Museum visitors dropped to 1 in every 5 adults last year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Contemporary art can be a hard sell with works such as a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine, four vacuum cleaners stacked in a glass case or an unmade bed strewn with trash.

Assistant curator Anna Stothart, who put together the current Jim Hodges show at the ICA, believes contemporary art is misunderstood.

“People think with contemporary art that there’s no longer pleasure in looking, that it has to be this super heady, intellectual thing, but I don’t think that’s true,” Stothart said. “When I’m giving tours and talking about exhibitions, I let people know it doesn’t have to always be serious. It doesn’t have to always be ‘Oh, I think this artist is so important and is doing such deep, intellectual work,’ and I think that’s what people think contemporary art is about.”

Contemporary art “demands more of the viewer,”  said David Henry, director of public programs.

Still, the ICA gets its share of repeat visitors, including teens, who often participate in ICA’s programming.

The ICA is a three-legged stool made up of exhibitions, teens and performances, said Ellen Matilda Poss Director Jill Medvedow.

Henry said the ICA is trying to build a different type of audience for the future and teens’ “sophistication with media and different sensibility about media” is a nice touch in driving museums forward.

The museum drew 9,000 teens last year through programs including the free Teen Nights. That’s how Cecelia Halle, 16, and Aric Oak, 16, ended up participating in the ICA’s various teen programs.

“The first thing we do with teen audiences is let them know that this is not a scary place and that they’re welcome here,” Wyrick said. ”

Teens can ease their way into the museum experience through Teen Nights or workshops, all offered for free.

“I got recommended to the ICA by a friend and I was like ‘yeah that’s cool, but not really,'” Oak said. “But that same year there was a Teen Night with free Chipotle and there were a lot of artsy people from my school and other communities, and I was like ‘Oh, this is something I want to be a part of.'”

Oak’s first Teen Night was last year and he’s since signed up for more programs and now considers himself more of a “museum-going person.”

Wyrick and Henry both see teens as important to the future of museums, and Halle is only one of the many teens at the ICA at the forefront of this new charge for contemporary art.

“Having strong teen programs is something incredibly important to having a strong contemporary art institution,” Halle said. “[The museum] is essentially bringing the most important group of people you could have out of any age group to a museum that is trying to have the most contemporary art.”