How teens are helping program the city's premier contemporary art museum

Naomi Cook, a ninth grader at Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies, thinks about contemporary art and its place in the community more than the average high school freshman. The distillery for those thoughts is the former auto dealership-turned-contemporary art hub, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).
As a member of the MOCAD Teen Council, Cook is among a select group of 14 young creatives from metro Detroit (coming from schools that include University of Detroit Jesuit, Cass Tech, Troy Athens, Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies, and Cody) who, with the help of museum professionals, produce programming for youth and adults at MOCAD. They meet weekly, and they get paid.
Cook says being on the council is just like having a job; she needs to be prepared and show up on time. "This makes the teen council more than just some after-school club," says Cook. "We are accountable for the work we do. Teens also do not have a lot of money, so getting a paycheck every month is really helpful. This year I was able to buy all of my own school and art supplies."
Since the council's inception in January of 2014, the youth have put together exhibitions, open studios, teen music nights and dances, video game tournaments, and movie nights. Last July the council created a pop-up gallery at Wayne State's Elaine L. Jacob Gallery featuring artwork, music, and spoken word by teen council members.

The museum benefits from the energy and spirit of the teens and hopes that it will benefit in the long term by nurturing more creative people in the metro area.
"I want these teens to be supported and driven by their own passions," says Elysia Borowy-Reeder, executive director at MOCAD. "With contemporary art as a lens through which to understand themselves and the world, they learn to look critically at art, speak publicly as they share and craft their own ideas about art with others, and participate fully in the life of MOCAD as young leaders and ambassadors."

Before coming to MOCAD, Borowy-Reeder was the founding executive director of the CAM (Contemporary Art Museum) Raleigh in North Carolina. She started a teen council there and launched a similar program while at the Milwaukee Art Museum. She clearly believes in the value of engaging young people in the art world.

The program instills independence by the very virtue of the responsibility laid before the teens. They are expected to come up with concepts and carry them through to fruition. According to museum staff, they work hard, rarely asking for help while executing all the details of their events. And since they're planning events and workshops for their friends, they want to make them great.
The teen council also touches on the youth's social and emotional development and increases their ability to self-advocate.
Since joining the Teen Council, Cook says she's opened up to others and been able to better express herself visually and vocally. "The council helped me to be a more outgoing person through group discussions and making those discussions real by way of being a part of planned events, exhibitions, and field trips."

When the council began, some of the teens were quiet, hesitating to get involved and collaborate. But as they got their feet wet, they went beyond sharing and contributing and right to constructive criticism. As they met with museum professionals, they were able to critique their own work in planning workshops and events, noting what could have been done better or what worked well.
They are also learning about the art of negotiation. "Initially, they were spirited when they disagreed, but became more diplomatic," says Tylonn Sawyer, youth program producer at MOCAD.  They learned how to vote, handle the rejection if their ideas didn't make the cut, and how to use those banked ideas down the road. "Everyone's voice is heard," says Sawyer. "They are like one unit, like a family."

Teen council members also have unparalleled opportunity to work with professional artists. For the MOCAD People's Biennial exhibition (running through January 4, 2015), the teen council is presenting an exhibition of work produced while under the tutelage of artistic mentors. Teen Council members were paired with creative professionals, who guided the creation of the teen's work for the exhibition through workshops, talks, and individual critiques.
Also on the radar, teens will participate in the December Monster Drawing Rally, a MOCAD fundraiser and live event where artists draw for 60 minutes, after which every drawing is hung on the walls and made available for purchase for $40. Members of the Teen Council will also be working with performance artist and fabric sculptor (think Soundsuits) Nick Cave on Dance Labs next spring.
Members have also helped in the community, working with Wayne County Social Services on beautification projects and hosting a craft table at Noel Night.
All this aside, it's the insider's look into contemporary art that is really opening up the minds and creativity of teens who are involved in the council. Before Cook became a member at MOCAD, she had a limited understanding of contemporary art. Her art exposure was through Detroit Institute of Arts, which she says engaged her in the statements and ideas of past moments.
"Now I now look at contemporary art in a whole new way," says Cook. "I think about new ways that I could create an art piece, which would engage people to understand the statements and the ideas of now."

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and the editor of Michigan Nightlight, an online source of solutions, news and inspiration for those who are working to positively impact the lives of Michigan kids.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni.

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Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.