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Museum Programs Affect Teens for a Lifetime

A first-of-its-kind study shows that the effects of arts programs can last well into adulthood

It turns out art really does change lives. (Peter Barritt/robertharding/Corbis )
smithsonian.com

Every year, thousands of teenagers participate in programs at their local art museums. But do any of them remember their time at museum events later in life? A new report suggests that the answer is yes—and finds that alumni of arts-based museum programs credit them with changing the course of their lives, even years after the fact.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles recently commissioned a study to find out how effective their longstanding teen arts programs really are. They recruited over 300 former participants of four programs for teens that have been in existence since the 1990s. Alumni, whose current ages range from 18 to 36, were given a questionnaire and invited to focus groups and profile sessions to find out how they viewed their participation years after the fact.

Among the alumni surveyed, a whopping 75 percent of alumni rated the teen program experience as the most positive influence on their own lives, surpassing family, school and their neighborhoods. Nearly 55 percent thought that it was one of the most important experiences they’d ever had, regardless of age. And two-thirds said that they were often in situations where their experience in museums affected their actions or thoughts.

It turns out that participating in teen art programs also creates culturally-aware adults: Ninety-six percent of participants had visited an art museum within the last two years, and 68 percent had visited an art museum five or more times within the last two years. Thirty-two percent of program alumni work in the arts as adults.

Though the study is the first of its kind to explore the impact of teen-specific art programs in museums, it reflects other research on the tangible benefits of engaging with the arts. A decade of surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts found that childhood experience with the arts is significantly associated with their income and educational attainment as adults. Other studies have linked arts education to everything from lower drop-out rates to boosts in critical thinking skills and cultural mobility.

If you participated in an arts program as a child, chances are you’re nodding your head. But if you weren’t so lucky, never fear: There’s always time to visit a museum. In fact, Museum Week is still in full swing on Twitter. Check out the #museumweek hashtag and see if you get inspired—there’s no telling how the art you witness this week could affect your life in the years to come.

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