Toward a Vision of Community-Driven Culture

Amidst the glut of coverage of the glitzy opening of the new Whitney Museum in early May, there was less coverage of some very powerful remarks made by Michelle Obama at the dedication: “You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.  And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as first lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.”

That is, before Rush Limbaugh and other conservative hate jockeys glommed onto it and accused her of playing the race card and of racializing everything (?!)  No matter that non-racialized establishments like the Center for the Future of Museums provide research and statistics substantiating this, as noted in Charles Blow’s New York Times Op-Ed “Of Museums and Racial Relics”.

Meanwhile, intrepid WNYC covered this last Monday in a more enlightened way in a terrific piece called “Museums as White Spaces” that chronicles the myriad messages that are and aren't sent in traditional museum spaces.  The piece profiles the strides the Brooklyn Museum has made in becoming a more diverse and dynamic institution through its First Saturday initiative, its expansive and inclusive exhibits and programming, and its staffing.  40% of Brooklyn Museum’s visitors are now minorities.  Where there is institutional will and wallet, it can be done!

WNYC followed up with another piece this morning profiling the Bronx Museum of the Arts and its director Holly Block along with arts teacher Leslie Bernstein from Stuyvesant HS on the role of museum director and, more broadly, the role of museums in our city.  Block talked about the challenges of fundraising (the Bronx Museum is free, which is of course important for accessibility and which isn't cheap!) and Bernstein underscored the importance of “reaching out to the public.”  She noted, "it’s important for people to know the options and what is available to them through the museum, and especially to try to educate kids in all sorts of ways.”

In addition to what individual museums can do, New York City is playing an important role in making cultural institutions more accessible that hasn’t received as much fanfare as it should.  In January 2015, NYC launched the precedent-setting Municipal ID initiative, IDNYC—the largest in the country.  All New York residents over 14 are eligible.  One of the exciting aspects of this initiative is the participation by many of the city’s finest cultural institutions to provide access to holders of IDNYC.  Cardholders are eligible for one-year free membership packages at 33 of the city’s leading cultural institutions, including world class museums, performing arts centers, concert halls, botanical gardens, and zoos in all five boroughs, inclusive of free or discounted admission, access to special events, and discounts to museum shops and neighborhood businesses. As such, all high schoolers in New York are theoretically eligible, yet few to date are aware of and utilizing this privilege.

And sadly, stories of high schoolers in cultural institutions are too often fraught, as was the case in a recent story in Gothamist about “rowdy students” from Brooklyn Science Skills Center allegedly being banned from The Guggenheim.  I don’t know what really happened at the Guggenheim but regardless, there is lots of work to be done to support museums and other locales in being authentically inclusive of urban youth AND to equip youth to engage positively and fruitfully with such institutions.

So this is where CityPathways comes in, natch.  We propose to recruit and engage a cross-section of young New Yorkers who would become youth “cultural ambassadors” who would go on expeditions to the institutions to reflect on their experiences (what's inviting, what's off-putting, what's missing that would increase their likelihood of returning and bringing friends), make recommendations for enhancing access and engagement by diverse teens across NYC, and create youth guides and/or an app or website to facilitate youth engagement (aka "Yelp for Youth")  

The arts are a powerful vehicle for youth to understand and respond to the world, to examine how art influences society and how society influences art, to engage in social commentary, to reimagine community, and to examine what they want to express about their world and how they want to express it. Our program will enable participating youth to develop voice through exposure, experience, development of point of view, and focus on expanding access for other youth like and unlike them.

The benefits to the city would be significant:

  • increase awareness of the cultural opportunities available and affordable to youth through IDNYC
  • engage youth stakeholders in demonstrating the appeal of these institutions and generating ways to broaden the base of young people who participate
  • develop a cadre of youth who are equipped to be cultural stewards for the city
  • demonstrate the degree to which IDNYC can be leveraged by cultural institutions to engage diverse young audiences in ways that elicit them to return and bring peers
  • help identify and incentivize an additional cadre of cultural institutions to participate in IDNYC 2016-7
  • create print and digital vehicles that foster youth engagement

And the benefits to the participating young people's lives—and the lives of so many additional lives linked to theirs—would be enormous.  The impact of the arts on my life growing up is incalculable—I truly can't imagine what my life would have been like without theatre, music, museums, but I do know I would have been a very different, far less creative, far less happy person.

I can't but think about this in conjunction with news of a study that got a lot of coverage last week, including in May 4’s New York Times Story An Atlas of Upward Mobility Shows Paths Out of Poverty, which concludes that poor children who grow up in some cities have sharply better odds of escaping poverty than similar poor children elsewhere, and that an extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.  Of course it's no great surprise that better neighborhoods make a big difference, but since we can’t realistically redistribute children and families (though I certainly do hope research like this will impact housing and development policy), what say we make poor neighborhoods better AND do a better job of making extant resources available to those who could benefit most?  Let’s start with the arts!

As is a cPaths credo, It's time to ramp up our efforts to make NYC into a game board of opportunity for youth, and the arts are an essential engine for doing so.