Museums are no longer just about collecting masterpieces. More and more, we are seeing a trend of social activism in museums. There is a universal belief that museums exist in order to serve the public. This new style welcomes visitors from all walks of life and believe in being an agent for actual change. One of the most undeserved groups — and the group of people that would benefit from exposure to museums — are youth who have experiences trauma, or at-risk youth.
Youth are considered at risk for a number of reasons. Examples may include:
- homeless or transient
- involved in alcohol or drugs
- abused sexually, emotionally, or physically
- mentally ill
- neglected at home
- stressful family environments
- lacking emotional support
- involved with delinquent peers
It is important to remember that anyone can be at risk. Most people associate being at risk with living in inner-city, low income neighborhoods. However, at risk populations can be found in suburban, rural, and urban communities.
Needs of At-Risk Youth
What are the needs of at-risk youth? What can we do to help them become successful adults? Most at-risk youth are missing a positive role model in their lives. They need access to a responsible adult. A supportive environment presented by a role model allow at-risk youth to see examples and the consequences of making positive choices. At-risk youth also need to be encouraged and they need to know that they matter. At-risk youth need to be supported and given boundaries and realistic goals.
At-risk youth present a unique set of challenges for museum educators. Lack of support and issues in the individual’s home life can cause challenges when working with this audience. Often times, once they leave school, or the museum in our case, they go home to unsupportive guardians who do not know how to help them. Educators should work to actively engage the guardians and/or community and include them as much as possible. There are many other things to consider when creating programming or working with at-risk youth. Some challenges may include: timing, transportation, and parental/guardian involvement.
How Museums are Helping
Professional artists and museum educators can provide the guidance and encouragement at-risk youth need. Artist collaborations with at-risk youth encourage dialog in the community and encourage meaningful relationships. Art museums around the country are introducing programming for at-risk youth in mind. Riverside Art Museum in Riverside, California offers programming for at-risk youth. The program, CREATIVE HORIZONS, “fosters self-exploration, encourages community engagement, develops mentor relationships, and creates awareness of creative-industry vocational opportunities”.
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland enlists the help of at-risk youth in creating mosaics that are placed on the facade of the museum. “This pro-youth program that covers our museum walls with recycled and sparkling mosaics first began in 2001 via a partnership with our museum’s near neighbor, the Southern High School, and its students identified as at great risk of dropping out. Their very hard team work created Phase I: the three-story tall shining mosaic facade that faces east, fronting Key Highway. The museum’s cafe balcony surface was then completed in 2006 in Phase II, working with youth in even greater need of mentoring—incarcerated juveniles in Baltimore City’s penal system. Its curved surface depicts a sunset and a moonrise with circular “planets” that are wholly imagined and created by our individual youth apprentices. The stunning beauty of the mirrored mosaic walls encircling our national museum gives us a chance to share the tragic news that nearly 90% of the teens serving time in Baltimore City are doing so for NON-violent crimes! Our Visionary museum’s skilled apprenticeship program encourages teamwork, pride in creating something both exquisite and lasting, and results in real job skills, useful for the rest of their lives.”
Art programs designed for under-served and underrepresented youth has proven to be powerful and effective. They are exposed to new careers, can express themselves through art and other media, and have access to responsible adults.