Looking Back and Forward: Reflections on Starting LGBTQ+ Teen Programming at the Brooklyn Museum (2011–2018)
Becky Alemán, Cheri E. Ehrlich, and Lindsay C. Harris, educators, artists, and youth advocates, Brooklyn Museum
In considering the need for art museums to provide welcoming and inclusive spaces for all visitors (Boyd Acuff & Evans, 2014), museum educators who teach teen audiences have a responsibility to recognize and acknowledge the unique perspectives and identities teens bring to learning environments. When art museum educators imbue learning environments with social consciousness and critical awareness, the environments become more inclusive and encourage teens’ deeper connections to art (Ehrlich, 2015). For teens who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Queer, Intersex, Two-Spirit, and/or Gender Nonconforming (LGBTQ+)(1), inclusion is imperative. Many LGTBQ+ teens experience feelings of isolation in relation to mainstream heteronormative culture and are often the targets of prejudice and discrimination (Russell & Fish, 2016). Given that engagements with art give rise to a multiplicity of interpretations and narratives, LGBTQ+ programs in art museums offer the promise of visibility and recognition for marginalized groups through a intersectional, non-heteronormative, and counter-narrative lens.
LGBTQ+ programming for teens in art museums can support teens who are posing questions about gender, sexuality, and sexual identity to help shape, express and formulate who they are (Lampela, 2007; Greteman, 2017). When teens’ conversations about gender and sexuality started to arise in response to discussions around contemporary artworks at Brooklyn Museum, teen program staff took note, envisioning and implementing a program especially for LGBTQ+ teens and allies in response to their articulated desires for such programming, The success of this program remains steadfast. While sharing a brief history of the evolution of this program, by three lead educators, the primary aim of this article is to offer a potential model of LGBTQ+ teen programming in museums in hopes that others will expand on what is possible for LGBTQ+ teen programs in museums.
Getting Started: Cheri Ehrlich, Teen Programs Coordinator, 2006–2013
While teaching teen programs in the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Museum, Cheri began to notice a pattern that emerged when facilitating inquiry-based discussions with teens in front of artworks presenting ideas about non-heteronormative sexuality. Teens either became silent or shifted the focus to heteronormative coupling. However, teens’ reflections collected during or following programs revealed their desires to engage more deeply with topics related to sexuality. In 2010, Cheri saw an opportunity to engage teens in other ways with LGBTQ+ topics in conjunction with the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibition highlighting gender and sexuality in American portraiture. Since the exhibition explicitly displayed numerous portraits of artists identifying as LGBTQ+, the exhibition had the potential to a) broaden what is possible for teen programs in museums, and b) showcase a range of narratives around gender, sexuality, and identity c) give LGBTQ+ teens a chance to see themselves represented and reflected in a range of artworks (Lampela, 2007). For these reasons, Cheri chose a socially-oriented format conducive to hosting the greatest number of participants. The year before, with success, she piloted a program called Teen Nights, also the first of its kind. Teen Nights were choice-based multi-activity events open to all teens across the city to take part as planners, promoters, participants, or performers. Below, Cheri shares how she adapted the Teen Night program to create the first LGBTQ+ teen program at the Museum which welcomed over 150 teens.
I grew up during a time when LGBTQ+ programs for youth were non-existent in educational environments and witnessed friends and students stifled by exclusionary, homophobic, and transphobic attitudes and behaviors, the event we created manifested an envisioned future. As an ally, I jumped on the opportunity to offer an unprecedented program that would benefit the LGBTQ+ teens I worked with, many of whom were young people of color. I knew that I could find support in helping to develop and shape the program from colleagues in the education department, yet, my experiences with some teens’ homophobic and transphobic attitudes and behaviors made me slightly apprehensive. I feared LGBTQ+ teens attending the event might be bullied, both physically and emotionally, both inside and outside the museum, by other teens expressing homophobic and transphobic views. I wondered how I would be able to offer a public event open to all teens across the city while, simultaneously, keeping the LGBTQ+ attendees safe. One idea I had involved asking teens entering the event to sign a statement attesting to being respectful of others during the event. Ultimately, I decided to ask for help from LGBTQ+ artists and community-based organizations (CBOs).
Forging these partnerships enabled me to learn from the LGBTQ+ community, and more specifically youth leaders who were more knowledgeable about how to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. Given these particular artists and CBOs already had existing relationships with LGBTQ+ teens, they were able to help attract LGBTQ+ teens who were also interested in art. We Are The Youth, a photojournalist project founded by Laurel Golio and Diana Scholl, became the event’s largest partner in planning and promoting the night’s activities. Other LGBTQ+ organizations or foundations either provided funding, helped with publicity and marketing, or tabled at the event, including GLSEN, GLAAD, Housingworks, The Door, TORCH, Hetrick Martin Institute, Queer Youth Theater, The Center, Ali Forney Center, and the Keith Haring Foundation.
The night turned out to be celebratory. Most of all, it was wonderful to see everyone smiling and having fun! The two-hour event included a DJ, musical performances, dance lessons by voguing legend, Archie Burnett, an art gallery featuring photographs by We Are the Youth, and interactive activities in the Hide/Seek exhibition. We made a huge breakthrough. With a large number of attendees, our partnership with We Are the Youth, the amount of financial support and participation from the CBOs, and the backing from our museum director, we not only confirmed a need we knew existed all along, but we also set a powerful precedent.
Gaining Momentum: Becky Alemán, Teen Programs Coordinator, 2013–2015
Becky also noticed teens’ curiosities about artworks highlighting power dynamics and identity related to gender, sexuality, body image, race, nationality, religion, and class while teaching. Becky observed teens’ desire to make and share art with peers around these topics and wondered how to build stronger bonds between teens who shared curiosities. When a request for proposal (RFP) arose from the Brooke Astor Fund for New York City Education to support new programs based on extant program models, Becky took action to help teens deepen their exploration of art, gender, and sexuality. Becky proposed the idea of a Teen Night Planning Committee composed of LGBTQ+ identified teens to design the planning and implementation of another LGBTQ+ Teen Night. The committee became a reality when the fund awarded the grant to support the hiring of an additional teen programs staff member to implement the LGBTQ+ Teen Night Planning Committee (LGBTQ+ TNPC) over three years. Considering the historical suppression and erasure of LGBTQ+ presence in art education (Check, 2000), the funding that made this program a reality broke the Brooklyn Museum free from notions of museums as ahistorical, monolithic, static for teens (Schwartz, 2005). Additionally, it helped to propel the museum farther into the envisioned future, where teens can invest and invent themselves (Greteman, 2017).
As a queer gender non-conforming educator of color, I have experienced validation of my identity, as well as isolation and erasure. I knew I had the tools to dream up something that could be fun, beautiful, and affirming for teens who live their fullest lives despite how hard society works to marginalize them. I knew I would need to bring my full self to the position and my experience with organizations and collectives such as New York City Collective of Radical Educators and the Audre Lorde Project to the forefront of my pedagogy to facilitate and support the teens. I crafted the proposal to include a request for an additional teen programs staff member, updated technology, MetroCards, and a compensation structure similar to the museum’s other teen programs as a pathway for teens to maintain participation with the program and to incentivize their investment. As much as possible, I did not want to replicate systems of oppression such as classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Providing MetroCards and hourly wages would not automatically exclude the very same teens we hoped would apply.
In creating this program, I had to be thoughtful and realistic about what barriers LGBTQ+ teens with multiple marginalized identities might face. The majority of teens attending high schools near the museum are people of color, and it would be important to their confidence to have their identities affirmed through intersectional programming. I had come to know Brooklyn Museum deeply and trusted how welcoming and expansive the institution could be on its best days. To bring some of these ideas to life became a dream come true.
Today: Lindsay C. Harris, Astor Teen Programs Coordinator, 2015–2017; Teen Programs Manager, 2017-present
Lindsay now oversees the LGBTQ+ TNPC, LGBTQ+ Teen Nights, and the program’s most recent expansions. Since 2015, four cohorts of LGBTQ+ teen staff have hosted four large-scale events at the museum, and two at partner institutions, each event attracting between 100 and 200 LGBTQ+ teens and allies. The program has continued to shift each year based on participant input and evaluation. The most recent iteration of the paid internship — InterseXtions: Gender & Sexuality — is a nine-month program hiring sixteen teens annually and unfolding in two parts. Part One explores gender and sexuality in art through an intersectional queer lens, and Part Two focuses on planning multiple peer-led arts programming for other LGBTQ+ youth and their allies.
In 2016, consultants Erin Howe, Somjen Frazer, and Melissa Dumont of Strength in Numbers Consultants evaluated the program. Teens’ responses to their participation on the LGBTQ+ TNPC reinforced initial motivations for the program’s inception. Howe, Frazer & Dumont (2016) found that LGBTQ+ TNPC participants came to the museum because they lacked opportunities to participate in LGBTQ+ clubs at school or elsewhere, or do not feel safe in these environments due to repercussions for their participation. As a result of their participation in the program, LGBTQ+ TNPC participants felt greater self-efficacy, less social isolation, and more social connection. Findings also revealed that while LGBTQ+ TNPC participants came to the program interested in the arts, they lacked exposure and an ability to contribute to the arts community, which the program ultimately provided. LGBTQ+ TNPC participation enabled participants to use art and the museum to gain insight about themselves, acquire marketable life skills, and be more readily able to discuss LGBTQ+ topics. Teen Night data revealed that 35.5% of attendees had never been to the Brooklyn Museum before and 40% of attendees had never been to an LGBTQ+-themed event (Howe, Frazer & Dumont, 2016). Thus, the museum is attracting new teen museumgoers and providing an opportunity for teens who had not previously taken part in LGBTQ+-themed events to do so.
While the LGBTQ+ Teen Night continues to be part of the curriculum, the program’s structure offers new possibilities for event planning and artmaking and expands chances for peer mentorship and leadership. It also includes more exploratory occasions to engage with artwork, artists, and community organizing through workshops and trips. As a result of the program’s expansion and innovation, LGBTQ+ teens and allies have greater access to participating in LGBTQ+ themed programs, giving them a deeper knowledge and greater understanding of LGBTQ+ themes in the Museum’s collection, and ultimately, a greater understanding and celebration of gender and sexual difference.
As a mixed black queer woman, educator, media artist, and social justice advocate, I wanted to create the program I wished I had as a teen. My original goals echoed predecessors — to build creative, inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ teens to be able to see, be, and craft themselves and their futures. I have discovered the immense power this program, its teens, and other educators and museum professionals can have to push museums forward and impact multiple audiences. LGBTQ+ explicit programming and the increased availability of resources like the American Alliance of Museum’s LGBTQ Alliance Welcome Guidelines (2016) hold museum staff at all levels accountable to LGBTQ+ inclusion in all our spaces — from all gender restrooms to personnel policies. As such, new goals and outcomes have emerged for me — reimagining what museums can and should be for their communities.
The teens involved are artists, creatives, revolutionaries, and have challenged me to stand more firmly in my own identity as the intersection of my work in and outside of the museum. Through this lens, I have doubled down on my advocacy of LGBTQ+ intersectional and intentional programming. While LGBTQ+ teen-hosted events welcome all teens, the LGBTQ+ teen internship recruits exclusively LGBTQ+-self identified teens, predominantly teens of color, as experts on their own experiences and peer needs, and centers marginalized gender and sexual identities. Artists, educators, programmers, and organizers invited to support or lead workshops are also LGBTQ+. For me, this is crucial. It supports the safety and comfortability of the teens to express themselves freely, as many of them are in homes, schools, or community environments that have little LGBTQ+ presence at best, and are violent, homophobic and transphobic at worst. It also provides the space for them to see themselves and their future potential in others. How can we imagine a future, if we don’t see anyone who looks like us or shares our experiences?
I’m excited by the work we have already done to be explicit, to carve space, and to (re)imagine. I’m thrilled to continue this important work into the future — to grow the world to be more equitable and inclusive of all the vibrancy and beautiful complexity that young people, specifically LGBTQ+ teens of color, carry.
For educators, who identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies, the following are recommendations for cultivating spaces for LGBTQ+ and teen allies in museums:
- Ask questions and listen to your teen audiences: What supports do they need from you? What would they like to do and talk about during their time at the museum? Do they see themselves represented in artworks, why and why not? Which artworks and artists draw their attention?
- Design and do what fits: Design a program merging the needs, skill, interests, and identities of your teen audiences, education staff, and community, at large.
- Create safer spaces through visibility: Make yourself known as an LGBTQ+ ally or advocate through sharing personal experiences related to your own LGBTQ+ identity or allyship. Post LGBTQ+ safe space posters in your office. Advocate for all gender restrooms and other visual markers for LGBTQ+ safety and inclusion. Use proper gender pronouns.
- Train to be an ally or advocate: Organizations like Campus Pride and GLSEN offer safe space training resources.
- Partner up: Reach out to LGBTQ+ organizations and discuss ways to support each other’s goals through partnership.
- Evaluate, Revisit, and Revise: Incorporate a reflective and reflexive practice that includes professional development, incorporates current best practices, and applies feedback from programmatic evaluations.
The prospect of coming out or speaking up about LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion may give rise to feelings of fear, vulnerability, or self-protection (Check, 2000; Check & Ballard, 2014), however, experiences described above reveal ways teens and museum educators alike benefit. The future of art museums will be shaped by educators who envision and realize safe, inclusive, intersectional, and counter-narrative learning environments that challenge homophobia and transphobia and welcome LGBTQ+ teens and allies to connect, engage, and learn with art and each other.
Becky Alemán is an educator, cultural worker, and activist from Austin working to develop the leadership of NYC youth. Becky creates arts-based programs that support teen development and creates spaces where they can grow, organize, and create. She has increased youth access to art at Brooklyn Museum and supported youth organizers at Girls for Gender Equity in their fight against school pushout. Becky has a B.A. in Africana Studies and Art History from Vassar College and explores intersectional identities, social justice, and cultural organizing in her work. She is currently Manager of Youth Cultural Organizing at Friends of the High Line in NYC. @becky_aleman
Lindsay Catherine Harris
Lindsay is the Teen Programs Manager at Brooklyn Museum and a media artist, educator, social justice advocate, exploring projects around identity and history, race and sexuality. Originally from the Southwest, Lindsay holds a B.A. in Africana Studies from Vassar College, and a M.A. in Arts Politics from New York University Tisch School of the Arts. She has previously led media and social justice youth programs across schools and organizations around NYC including Educational Video Center, BRIC Arts Media, Museum of the Moving Image, and Center for Urban Pedagogy. She is the recipient of the Flaherty Film Seminar Fellowship, Black Public Media Digital Arts Fellowship, Laundromat Project Create Change Fellowship, and is a current NYU Critical Collaborations Fellow. @lindscathar www.lindsaycatherine.com
Cheri Eileen Ehrlich
Cheri Eileen Ehrlich is a Full-time Temporary Assistant Professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania where she teaches the courses Women in the Arts and Art, Design, and Visual Culture. Ehrlich’s research on feminist art and adolescent engagement in art museums is published in Visual Art Research. Her chapters appear in the books Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, Women’s Caucus Lobby Activism, and Feminism and Museums: Intervention, Disruption and Change. Ehrlich completed her doctoral work in art and art education at Teachers College Columbia University, where she also received her EdM. Additionally, Ehrlich holds a BFA in Painting and a BA in Women’s Studies from UMass Amherst, and an MAT in Art Education from Tufts School of the Museum of Fine Arts. @cheriehrlich
The authors would like to thank all those who helped make our work and this article possible through their generous donations or dedicated efforts, and those who persisted in paving the path for LGBTQ+ visibility in the fields of art education and museums.
(1) While not exhaustive and subject to change to meet the growing needs of multiple communities, for a relatively comprehensive list of LGBTQ+ terminology, refer to https://www.umass.edu/stonewall/sites/default/files/documents/allyship_term_handout.pdf. For useful info-graphics, refer to http://www.transstudent.org/graphics
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