A Teen Think Tank at Guild Hall

Creative students are paid to think big
Members of Guild Hall’s Teen Arts Council listened to advice from Jeremy Dennis, a photographer, during a recent meeting. Courtesy of Guild Hall

Sitting around a table strewn with half-eaten packages of cookies and chips, the Guild Hall Teen Arts Council held its weekly brainstorming meeting as part of an initiative aimed at giving young people a bigger stake in the future of the arts and offering teens more cultural opportunities here on the East End.

But first, the paid council members — students ages 14 to 18 from East Hampton, Sag Harbor, and Bridgehampton public schools and the Ross School — had a photography assignment to complete. Jeremy Dennis, a young artist born and raised on the Shinnecock Reservation who uses digital photography to bring to life Native-American stories and legends, asked the kids to take their mobile phones outside and snap images using prompts such as “line,” “rule of odds,” “negative space,” and “frame within frame.” 

Of the 11 council members selected in February through an interview process, only five were present for the mid-November meeting: Lilah Yektai, a ninth grader from the Ross School; Gianna Gregorio, a senior at East Hampton; Frankie Bademci, a junior at East Hampton; Victoria Dudek-Tipton, a 10th grader from Sag Harbor’s Pierson, and Madeleine Grabb, a sophomore from Bridgehampton. The group meets about once a week, for approximately two hours after school during the academic year. Each member is paid $10 an hour for his or her work and, once selected, members remain on the council until graduation, after which a new council member is hired.

The Guild Hall Teen Arts Council is modeled after one that began in 1996 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was later adopted by arts institutions around the country. Andrea Grover, Guild Hall’s executive director, got a close-up view of a similar teen initiative when her husband, Carlos Lama, ran the teen council at the Contemporary Arts Museum Hous­­ton. 

“Even beyond the actual programming,” said Ms. Grover of her current group, “they bring enthusiasm and renewed energy to Guild Hall. And by paying them for their time and their input, these teens develop an inherent value in the future of this institution.”

The first event unveiled by the council, which came in May as part of the Guild Gathering series, was  “teen takeover,” a creative networking night aimed at engaging, cultivating, and connecting artists, professionals, and the public. 

The young council members enlisted three emerging local artists (Brianna Ashe, Leah Kirts, and Amanda Phelan) to deliver short presentations on the theme of “connections.” Then they orchestrated an interactive art and word exploration based on the “Before I Die” project, a global participatory art enterprise that reimagines the public’s relationship with death. 

At Guild Hall, guests were encouraged to answer — with words or images — questions such as “Where did you see yourself in 10 years?” “How do you lead a satisfying life?” and “What’s your Goldberg’s [bagels] order?” The goal was to find connections between guests and open up a dialogue between people that might not have happened organically. It was followed by a chance for attendees to mix and mingle in the Boots Lamb Education Center, which serves as the teen council headquarters.

“They took over the event entirely,” said Ms. Grover. “It was their idea, and they generated absolutely everything.” The evening, which was free and open to all, was a huge success, said Ms. Grover.

“It was really well attended,” said Gianna, who will graduate from high school next year and therefore leave the council. “We had about 50 people, a mix of students, parents, and friends.” 

In the wake of that success, these teen programmers hope that their weekly workshops will generate even more galvanizing initiatives.

“I’m always inspired after I leave our meetings, to do more,” said Frankie, an outspoken and witty young man who thinks he might like to pursue musical theater in college. Asked to share some of the ideas they’ve been kicking around, the teens generated a rapid-fire list of artsy ways to connect to other teenagers in the area.

“A teen town hall. Vocalize teen issues and get the teens involved.” “Teen nights — a sort of social experiment to help teens be comfortable in the arts and in the theater.” 

“More master classes, more workshops.”

“We need to put the arts in Teen Arts Council.”

“An artist match-up. Artists with similar interests get together for coffee, or something. Without it being creepy.”

“What do you think about a telethon?”

The job of harnessing all this teen spirit falls on Corey Jane Cardoso. She joined Guild Hall three years ago as a company manager, but was asked last year by Ms. Grover to spearhead the teen council. “The hardest part for me is taking big ideas and helping them channel it into possible programming. They’re constantly bubbling over with ideas and grand schemes of what they’d like to produce and it’s really a matter of funding and space that limits them,” she said. 

Having worked at the Ross School’s summer camp for several years, Ms. Cardoso seems undaunted by the task of overseeing this think tank for creative teens. Part mentor and part facilitator, Ms. Cardoso highlighted two of her main goals with the program: First, she wants to show creatively driven teenagers that there are real career opportunities in the arts, that it can be a passion as well as a vocation. Second, she said, “I also really want to provide programming for teens in our community because there is such a lack of events for them. It’s a huge population out here, and when there isn’t anything to do, that’s when teens turn to drugs and alcohol to find entertainment.”

During last month’s fall fair in East Hampton, organized by the Chamber of Commerce, the Teen Arts Council set up and staffed a table in Herrick Park, where they sold a number of memberships to their peers. That surely made Ms. Grover and other managers at Guild Hall very happy, because everyone knows the future of theater lies in sparking the interest of young people.