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St. Louis Museums Offer Innovative Job Training

TMS class of 2012 in Contemporary Art Museum receiving room.
Provided by CAMSTL

If someone were to tally the number of St. Louis area students participating in career training at arts institutions and compare that to the numbers in other local industries, the arts might possibly win. The Contemporary Art Museum, alone, draws hundreds of students into its pre-professional programming each year. And not only are the exciting, pre-professional youth programs at CAM and the St. Louis Art Museum free to participants, some pay a stipend.

Those selected for this year’s Teen Museum Studies program at CAM just recently learned of their good fortune. In this program, the students will choose artists and themes they wish to develop in mini-exhibits that they will then organize at the museum. In the process, these teens will experience the wide variety of tasks required of curators as they envision, develop, install and, finally, represent their exhibits for CAM visitors.

CAM has developed several youth out-reach endeavors over the last decade. Students in CAM’s New Art in the Neighborhood program will develop their own professional art portfolios as they prepare for college or embark on a new career. In separate components, high school students and middle schoolers explore St. Louis while creating art.

At the St. Louis Art Museum, the Teen Arts Council gives high school students the chance to work as curators. These students sign and implement arts events inside and outside of the museum. As they work with museum professionals to create their own exhibits, they engage with local artists. They meet with entrepreneurs to discuss project ideas. They discover, by doing, what it takes to organize and to lead.

The Teen Arts Council was created last year by 2011-12 SLAM Romare Bearden Fellow, Vanity Gee. This year, Bearden Fellow Kimberly Jacobs facilitates the council. Given that Jacobs is from Jackson, Miss., she is also having an adventure exploring local art institutions and local artists. The Tavern of Fine Arts hosted the 2013 Young Artists’ Exhibit and will host the exhibit for the students participating this year.

The Teen Assistants program is another pre-professional opportunity at SLAM, and those who are selected will be paid. CAM, also, will provide the Teen Museum Studies participants with a stipend. That opens up the programs to students who don’t have the freedom to forgo summer employment. It also sends a significant message to the teens about the value of their work.

CAM education director, Tuan Nguyen, enjoys watching students form teams to tackle challenges that initially appeared insurmountable. Nguyen sees the museum as a model for the ideally open office in which ideas are shared and welcome. His attention to the development of young collaborators is in perfect tune with the call for changing corporate climate found in so many TED talks, op-ed articles and commencement speeches.

Nguyen at CAM and Jacobs at SLAM are heavily involved in local collaboration. They and the other members of their museum teams support each other, sharing what has and hasn’t worked in past years. They depend upon large and small local entities to keep their programming fresh and relevant. The Missouri History Museum, the MUNY, Metro Theater Company, Craft Alliance, Perennial, the Northside Workshop, Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts and the Firecracker Press are just a few of the many organizations that have provided real world application and instruction to the young people involved in arts programs at SLAM and CAM.

Nguyen says it is no accident that this list is so long, “It is crucial, as St. Louis arts organizations that we stick together. Doing so makes all of us stronger.”

He and Jacobs find that work with individual artists is especially empowering for students. Studio visits make the students aware of the day-to-day operations of arts entrepreneurs and allow them to build connections. Installations come alive when introduced by their maker.

The investment that all of these parties are making in St. Louis youth – the artists, the small businesses, the galleries and museums – is a proven method for helping young people flourish. Before long, the whole city benefits. The students involved in St. Louis area art museum career programs represent all areas of St. Louis, geographically and otherwise. Their career goals are equally diverse.

Professional training in a museum context has practical applications beyond the obvious. Students engage deeply with a variety of subjects that are inherent in a well-rounded education. They gain confidence and cultural authority while discussing the complex visual language of the art they encounter. They face issues of class, gender, identity, privilege and race. They discuss physics, health and religion … the entire human experience is up for examination.

For the future businessperson, the experience is a better investment than golf lessons. The future educator will come closer to knowing how to ask the really good question and then how to listen. The future judge gains empathy and a better ability to observe third and fourth perspectives. The future engineer draws links between the abstract and the concrete, while developing invaluable tools for envisioning possibility.

With luck, those in these programs will look back at their teen arts careers as an incubatory period that set them on a creative and fruitful career path.

Full disclosure: My own joy-filled introduction to art professions came in 1988 when I was chosen to participate in a program the St. Louis Art Museum organized to train public school students as Teen Mummy Curators.