The Life Cycle of Art
What happens when the Teen Arts Council takes the wheel
Written by Claire Zulkey
“Please pardon our dust. We make things in here ”
So reads a sign taped to a basement door at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park, a mixed-use space operated by Arts + Public Life (APL) at the University of Chicago. It’s early March, and the Teen Arts Council (TAC) has gathered to meet with Gabriel Moreno, a preparator at APL who will help the high school students decide how to display the artwork in Correct Opinions, the exhibition of teen art the TAC has brainstormed and curated for installation in the Incubator’s gallery. “I make everything look unified and stable, make the kinks and the bumps look like they’re not there,” Moreno explains to the students.
A hand goes up. “Have you ever seen an exhibition fail?” one student asks. Moreno doesn’t use the term “failure” but admits that he has had to install things “up until an hour before opening, while the paint on the wall was still wet.” With a week before Correct Opinions opens, he’s there to make sure the teens address “the little things people don’t do when they’re in a hurry.”
The cohort of 16 students has been involved with Correct Opinions since before the exhibition even had a name. “This is the most ambitious and the longest of our projects,” says Marya Spont-Lemus (AB’06), Community Arts Program Manager at APL, who founded and co-leads the TAC program. “We wanted to have a project that’s at that intersection of arts administration and community engagement.”
As Spont-Lemus points out, arts internships like these are often unpaid, or go to students who already have access to professional connections, “which locks out the students who we serve.” This eventually hinders the students from accessing jobs in the art world long-term.
However, through the partnership between Arts + Public Life and After School Matters, the TAC students receive a stipend, build a network, and can also avail themselves of resources at the University of Chicago, which, says Spont-Lemus, “include networks and opportunities to create work here.”
Creating Correct Opinions was an intense, immersive process that teens began in late September 2016. “For the first few weeks, most students didn’t know what the word ‘curator’ meant,” says Spont-Lemus. The process began with workshops on art and social justice as well as how the placement and context of a work creates meaning. The teens also visited other art programs and galleries, addressing themes like “How do you talk to an artist about their work?”, “How do you identify what resonates with you?”, and “How do you present to a group?”
One student, Lovette C., a junior in high school, took note of a visit to one gallery. “They had this video playing in the back. The sound tore me away, which made me think about how sounds and images can add to a show or take away.”
After the visits, the teens decided on the parameters for their own exhibition. Their call for art would be more precise than “Make whatever you want,” says Spont-Lemus, but the TAC also wanted a theme that was more expansive than an exhibition tied to the election, or to violence. The teens ultimately landed on the theme of “value,” interpreted broadly. “They said that they wanted to create something that could uplift people and also help them engage with complexity,” says Spont-Lemus.
After receiving 174 submissions from teens in After School Matters arts programs across the city, it was time for the council members to decide on the 50 or so works they would display. While making the selections, a senior named Cairo B. says, the students learned that curators must “make sure whatever you pick is worthy to be in a museum not just because you like it. You have to think about other people’s perspective.” As the teens reviewed and discussed the submissions, a subtle shift in the exhibition’s vision emerged, along with an exhibition name. In the TAC’s words, the resulting Correct Opinions reflects both on varied personal interpretations of “value” and the impact this concept has on how we perceive our voices in the world.
The length and depth of the project was an important experience for the students, says Spont-Lemus. “They’ve gone through that messy process of picking the work for the show and narrowing it down—they shifted the theme slightly, they changed the name, they went through all these crises.” There was even a debate, TAC co-instructor Victoria Martinez says, about what type of food to serve at the exhibition opening. “Some students wanted more traditional gallery snacks and others wanted soul food to represent the South Side of Chicago.” In the end, the teens agreed on half and half.
For Kayode B., a junior, the biggest challenge of the show was “putting it on the wall and making it look organized. Other museums look so neat: we want to try to make it look like that. I didn’t expect it to be that hard.” Echoing Moreno, the preparator, Kayode adds, “You want everything to be as close to perfect as possible, to use your time wisely.”
By late March, once the show had opened to the public, if there were any last-minute mistakes (or wet paint), they weren’t visible to the guests. A guided tour was scheduled for the evening of March 29 as part of the exhibition’s extensive related programming. Like the rest of the exhibition, the students programmed and ran the events, which included an open mic, screen-printing workshops, and a teach-in for educators, for which, Martinez says, the students were especially excited. “They’ll voice their opinions about the different systems or styles that teachers [use to] teach them.”
At the guided tour, a handful of students led the guests to various corners of the gallery, which included self-portraits exploring young black female identity, a mosaic skull, paintings displayed inside cigar boxes, and even a video element (with headphones plugged in, so while the television flickered, there was no sound.) At a set of black and white photos alongside a charcoal drawing, Milik C., a freshman, led visitors through a brainstorming session of possible titles for the wall, given their own interpretations. In front of a pencil portrait of Barack Obama, one teen asked the guests how the drawing would make them feel if it were of Donald Trump.
This process of considering various points of view when it comes to art, Lovette says, will impact her own painting. “It makes me question myself more when I’m making the art. What does this mean to me, and what do I pull out of it? Often I’ll end up drawing freehand and I’m looking at it and I have no idea where it came from—everything is submerged in my brain.”
The experience has convinced Cairo, who also collaborated on a diamond-themed sculpture called Forever, to make all his art exhibition-worthy. “I just want to try to create everything on a professional level. I would like to try and do more exhibitions.” He was surprised by how much he enjoyed the role of curator. “I didn’t think that being in control of something like this would be as fun and informational as it was. I learned a lot about creating and putting up art.”
After the guided tour, the students seemed pleased and a little relieved. “I’m proud of us as teens,” Lovette says, and mentions how many visitors to Correct Opinions expressed surprise over how much ownership the high schoolers had over the exhibition. She saw it as a backhanded sort of compliment. “It’s a positive reaction,” she says. “Yet, why are you surprised?”