Including teens in the institutional voice: The Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council Blog

As a museum educator I have been in many meetings about how to make museums accessible and welcoming to teenagers. Often “technology” was floated as an answer to teen engagement, the assumption being that teenagers are already involved in using technology and would feel more comfortable at a museum if they could connect and relay their experience using technology. However, when faced with the reality of bringing the teen voice into the museum or into its web or social media presence, many museums falter. Authentically engaging teens also means giving up a certain level of control and authority over the “voice” of the museum and who gets to speak for it.

Walker Teen Art Council 2009-2010. Photo by Cameron Wittig.

One museum that has found a balance in engaging teens both in the galleries and online is the Walker Art Center, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The Walker Teen Arts Council, or WACTAC for short, launched their blog in 2007.  The blog came about when WACTACT members criticized the teen programs section of the website as boring and static. The Walker’s Education and New Media Initiatives departments worked together to create a new teen site, which Justin Heideman and Witt Siasoco discussed in a paper given at the Museums and the Web conference in 2008.  They identified two audiences for the site: teen programmers and teachers looking for information about the Walker’s offerings for teenagers and teens themselves. This inspired them to create two different sides to “the business side of things” for information about the Walker’s teen programs, and “the play side of things,” for the blog.

Updated entirely by the Teen Art Council, the blog places the teen voice and experience at the center of the Walker’s teen programs presence on the web.  The blog features posts about musicians like St. Vincent, an interview with Bruce Campbell with answers in 140 characters or less, a WACTAC member’s anger over the censorship of an artist at his high school, and skateboarding, extreme sports and the art these athletes make. The blog also functions as a resource for teens in the Twin Cities.

This fall I visited the Walker and sat down with Adriana Rimpel, who manages WACTAC, to talk with her about the blog. She explained that this year she implemented a blog posting schedule and guidelines for WACTAC members. Each week a different member is assigned to blog. They must post about at least one local opportunity for teens. She explained that this enables WACTAC members stay on top of what is happening in the area in the arts and beyond. Once they have posted about the opportunity they may post about a subject of their choosing and any member of the council may post outside of their assigned week. Adriana explained that the blog’s guiding editorial philosophy very wide: if a subject interests teens, they may post about it. While teens are not required to relate their posts to their experience at the Walker, many choose to.

Walker Teen Art Council 2011-2012. Photo by Gene Pittman.

Adriana presents the blog to the WACTAC members an important piece of their experience of being on the teen council and representing the Walker. She compared the privilege of blogging and the access and prestige it afford as similar to having a Walker ID badge, which the teens also receive. The teens get a basic workshop in blogging techniques such as linking, tagging, and adding images and video.  They also discuss elements that make a strong blog post and look at past posts and other blogs as examples.  A tutorial to introduce teens to blogging is important, because while it is often assumed they are comfortable using web-based technologies, many are unfamiliar with specific platforms.

The content of the blog is open ended beyond posting about local teen events. Adriana allows and profanity and nudity in posts as long as they are there to serve a certain purpose or make a particular point, which also matches the spirit of a contemporary art center like the Walker. Adriana explained her editorial policy as, “If you can’t back it up as to why it’s there, don’t put it in.” While Adrianna has the power to edit the blog she said she has never taken out anything the teens have written, and has added links or images only with the teens’ permission.  She explains changing a post without consulting the author would also break the trust they have established. She also points out that they review particularly strong posts in meetings and give positive feedback to demonstrate to the teens that the blog has a purpose behind it.

One challenge teens must overcome to be successful bloggers is their own hesitation. Adriana explained that at first, “They feel a huge weight or responsibility to be eloquent and make a profound statement on behalf of the Walker and all teens in the twin cities, and so they feel paralyzed.” Beginning with a structure, such as the requirement that teens must post about an upcoming opportunity for teenagers has helped the council members get comfortable using the blog. One they are comfortable they feel more confident to blog about subjects they are interested in. Adriana also advises other institutions that, “If you are If you are actually interested in letting teens run the site, you have to let them. I can do a lot of damage if I edit and slick up their posts without asking or talking to them first.”

Walker Teen Art Council 2010-2011. Photo by Cameron Wittig.

Blogs are only one choice of technological platform to engage teens and enable them to have a voice and a stake in an arts organization’s web presence. Technological innovation is not just about the choice of technology, but the approach to it and whether teens, their voices and perspectives are seen as integral to the project.  I asked Adriana what she see’s coming next for arts organizations that want to engage teens with technology. She remarked that, “Platforms that teens can personalize, they can show their work, garner prestige, have new experiences, feel socially accepted and meet new people will be exciting to teens because that is what they are seeking at that age.”  She emphasized that the answer does not lay in the format itself, remarking, “ I feel like so much with technology been done and especially for teens as soon as your mother or uncle is on whatever platform, it is already so old and dorky.”

The teen blog at the Walker offers those looking to engage the teenage voice through web-based technologies important guideposts:  web innovation with teenagers is successful when you ask them for their ideas and incorporate them, given them a structure to work within and clear guidelines, give them technical training and models to follow, enable them to customize the platform to their aesthetic (even if it is not yours), and trust them to bring a new, unexpected and exciting voices and viewpoints to the project.

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.