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Teen Art Councils Are Pushing for Change in Prestigious Museums

This article was first published by Teen Vogue

In any other year, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s (MCA) teen council would have spent the summer mounting 21Minus, its annual exhibition of local teen artists. Instead, Teen Creative Agency (TCA), MCA’s leadership program for Chicago teens (14-19 years old), has been organizing, calling for structural change and greater accountability from museum leadership.

In June, after a photograph surfaced suggesting that the museum donated to Chicago police, TCA wrote an open letter urging the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to clarify its relationship with the Chicago Police Department. The museum said it does not currently contract police and pledged to not enter future contracts. But the episode amplified cracks in the system, and more than 80 MCA employees followed with their own letter of demandsas did teens at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center.

“We realized this is bigger than we thought,” says Vivian Zamora, an 18-year-old recent alumnus of TCA. “It’s not just cops. There’s mistreatment of part-time staff, not enough transparency. A lot of our work now is pointing out how this institution works.”

Injustices pervade museums, which are drawing unprecedented scrutiny in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Vague institutional statements on Black Lives Matter, stories of racist work environments on Instagram accounts like @changethemuseum, and extensive layoffs during a pandemic have escalated criticism of long-tolerated behaviors. And at several art museums, teens in youth-led programs are fueling movements for overdue change.

Many of their concerns directly impact youth. For instance, Teen Creative Agency is now calling on the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago leadership to reinvest in BIPOC communities and move towards an abolitionist model of security. To start, members want the museum to reevaluate the role of guards who can make youth, particularly Black and brown youth, feel unwelcome.

“The tactics of art museum security are discriminatory and taken from police tactics,” says Hisham Kysia, another recent TCA alumnus. “I obviously look ‘other’ than the expected museumgoer, and I feel discrimination walking through exhibits and gift shops. It’s more than the MCA. I feel it at the Art Institute. When I went to MoMA, I was followed and told not to touch things when I wasn’t touching them.”

Teen Creative Agency would prefer to see guards — who at the MCA are contracted through the security services firm Securitas, a Swedish-based security group of trained officers — replaced by full-time artist guides who can meaningfully engage with visitors. For 18-year-old TCA member Ari Karafiol, a true sense of security stems from building public trust. “Talking about what a museum needs to feel protected from people is a problematic way of thinking,” they say. “I’m more invested in making people feel like the museum is such a part of their community that they want to make sure it’s protected.”