Teen art conversation

The Nevada Museum of Art’s program for young people isn’t just about art

Teens compete in a drawing contest at the Nevada Museum of Art’s Under 20 program.

Teens compete in a drawing contest at the Nevada Museum of Art’s Under 20 program.

Photo by David Robert

I parked on South Virginia Street and walked across the street and into a large, white tent. I continued down a flight of concrete stairs to see Picasso’s 25 Years of Edition Ceramics From the Edward and Ann Weston Collection, Nevada Museum of Art’s latest display in its temporary underground lair.

Something was different: Music by Stone Temple Pilots played on a small stereo. Just to the left of a bold, muscular Rodin statue were two large tables holding the small stereo, some chips, cookies, candy and a bowl of sodas. A tall youth at the entrance handed me a flyer about the selection of ceramics created by Pablo Picasso in collaboration with potters Georges and Suzanne Ramie. Rock music, chips and soda at the art museum? Think of them as accoutrements. This was the last Tuesday of the month, the night the Nevada Museum of Art sponsors 20 Below, one of its many community outreach programs. Admission is free for anyone with a high-school student ID.

Jude Gabbard, outreach educator for NMA and 20 Below’s new organizer, structured the event to attract teenagers. He approached high school art classes and collaborated with teachers. He brought in local sponsors interested in the teen demographic such as Vans and KRZQ, and he picked the music.

“It gives kids the opportunity to be exposed [to art] and to know that there are other things out there besides sports or religious activities,” Gabbard said.

Entering the museum, I followed a group of young guys with papers in their hands. Immediately I thought these teens were merely trying to get someone to sign their forms, so that they could get extra credit in school for attending. But talking to them, I found that only one of them was receiving extra credit for attending the event. The rest came for something to do.

Jimmy Son told me what he would have been doing that night had he not attended 20 Below: “I’d probably be at a church event or playing sports.”

Word has been spreading about the event.

“Each time [attendance] has been doubling,” Gabbard said.

The kids’ reactions—to Picasso’s ceramic owls and oddly shaped women striking non-erotic poses against the white backdrop of the walls and white casings—were varied. Some made wry comments and laughed about what they would eat on these “dishes” if indeed they were in their kitchens.

“This is all making me very hungry,” said John Mcintosh, a student at Wooster High School.

During a drawing contest, about midway through the evening, students were asked to draw a small coffee maker. Some depictions were realistic, but other teens indulged in interesting artistic departures. Judging by the strain on their faces as the students drew, all of the depictions were earnest and heartfelt efforts. Marlene Bowling, NMA’s curator of education and overseer of all outreach events, judged the contest. The winner received a Vans CD.

“It’s just a great opportunity to get students introduced to what museums have to offer,” Bowling said. “In Washoe County, a lot of our students don’t have the opportunity to get into art classes.”

Outreach events at local museums are becoming a national phenomenon these days.

“During the last 10 years, at museums across the country, it has become a big focus,” Gabbard said.

Bowling and Gabbard seemed pleased with the diversity of the group.

“We’re getting a great mix of students,” Bowling said, describing how some teens are brought in by their parents, while others hear about the program through art classes and others tag along with friends.

Most groups of students toured the room and observed the art pieces on display quickly near the beginning of the evening, yet they all remained in the gallery for almost two hours.

I stayed late as well, lingering to look at the art and to listen to the youths who were left. They stood around in a circle, waiting for someone else to say something witty or stupid. Topics of conversation ranged from this guy and that girl, to that class and that teacher to sports and to what life’s like for high-schoolers.

The program gives these kids a place to meet, a roof under which to gather. Somewhere to hang out for a couple of hours. Something to talk about. Something to joke about. Something positive.

“Part of my hope for this program is to reach out to a lot of the kids who are feeling alienated and underserved," Gabbard said.