Creating at the Museum: ArtLab and ArtReach

Imagine being given the chance to conceptualize, design, and build a sound suit like Nick Cave; learn about 3D animation, video production, and photography for free; get your portfolio critiqued by visiting artists; or hang your portrait on the walls of a museum. In Washington, DC, all of these options are possible at two local art museums.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with some of the innovative people behind the Hirshhorn’s ArtLab and the Corcoran’s ArtReach, two education programs functioning from their respective museums and making direct impacts in the local community by offering mind-blowing artistic opportunities for students. I spoke with Melissa Green, Director of Community Partnerships at ArtReach, and ArtLab’s Ryan Hill, Director of Digital Learning Programs, and Dawn Thomas, Lead Mentor, about the artistic meccas they provide for students in DC. Both organizations engage students from square one, whether it’s picking up a paintbrush or using a tablet for the first time.  At their core, these programs are trying to make the museum become a natural part of people’s lives. As Green explains, “Just feeling comfortable knowing it’s accessible to you, to your family, that it’s not just for certain people, allows more access, but creativity within the environment too.”

artlab.2.player1start ArtLab studio, summer 2013. Photo courtesy of ArtLab.


ArtLab is a digital media studio for teens, providing computers, software, tablets, cameras, and a team of mentors. Located at the Hirshhorn museum, the entrance to the studio is in the sculpture garden, which is significant because, as Thomas notes, “when you think Smithsonian, you think tourists, you don’t think local.”  ArtLab is moving past this perception and creating a community space on the National Mall, and any teen can participate on a drop-in basis. Where do all the lucky teens come from? While ArtLab has recruited in schools, they have found more success from teens bringing friends, spreading awareness by word of mouth.

ArtLab offers something different from school; staff members are called mentors, and they highly encourage and help facilitate peer-to-peer mentoring. While mentors are there to make teens comfortable, they also want to push them out of their comfort zones to try something new and break down the fear of failure. Although each week includes planned lessons and a degree of structure, they never know the group of kids they might get from day to day and plans can change based on interest. With a schedule like Movie Mania Monday or Costume Design Friday, Hill explains, “We have a palette of things for them to do.”

The program is a rare gem: it provides a space for teens to continuously pursue their artistic interests in an environment that is process-oriented rather than product-oriented. Teens get to spend time sharpening digital skills, feel comfortable creating, and have the opportunity to develop a portfolio.  ArtLab’s hope is to usher teens into higher education, entrepreneurship, or professional fields.  Their mentors represent that variety of possibility, ranging from artists and animators to museum staff. With so much room for spontaneity and interaction, Hill describes ArtLab as “a living laboratory for ideas about education.”

artreach.corcoran.1 Alex, an ArtReach Masterclass student, and Amelie, her Corcoran College of Art and Design mentor. They are looking at the glitter portrait Alex painted of Amelie at the end of the year Expressions exhibition. Photo by Ingrid Berbery, courtesy of ArtReach.


The Corcoran’s ArtReach has been creating with students for the last 21 years. The outreach program targets underserved and at-risk youth, ages 8-18.  The program’s main goal is take the museum into the community and it has partnered with two cultural centers to do so: THEARC serves Wards 7 and 8, and the Sitar Arts Center serves Ward 1. ArtReach creates a class at each location, serving a class of approximately 15 students per semester. ArtReach also brings students to the museum for behind-the-scenes programming. “They’re able to see this polished, beautiful interior and then we take them down into the ‘dungeon,’ the working area, so they get to see the reality too,” explains Green.

Programs rarely use digital mediums at ArtReach; instead, teachers try to pick things that students might find in their own home, democratizing artist materials and thus advancing the idea that art-making is for all.

Each semester ArtReach chooses a topic that relates to an exhibit and is theme-based, such as identity or cultural heritage. While the lessons are planned and structured, the program develops organically and leaves room for ventures down different paths. Last year, a portrait series even engaged parents, teachers, and Corcoran Museum staff. Taking inspiration from Mickalene Thomas, students created self-portraits and highlighted a feature in glitter similar to the artist’s aesthetic, sparking unanticipated interest and participation from parents and staff members (the power of glitter?).

Usually ArtReach picks one theme or exhibit, but this semester, Sitar students are working with artists from the Mexicali Rose Media and Arts Center and THEARC students are working with Mia Feuer, who is meeting with the students three times over the course of the semester. During the first session, students learned about her artwork and themes, such as over-consumption and environmental effects, and then looked to their own community and pollution in the Anacostia River. The class is now creating an installation with trash from the river and creating pieces about endangered species.  In addition to working with Feuer, ArtReach brought in watershed experts to join the discussion; the whole process has been an in-depth melding of art creation and community stewardship.

With such incredible opportunities and small class size, there is a waitlist, and ArtReach has struggled with the ideas of retention versus giving other students the opportunity to get involved.  One solution was to develop a “Master” class, for students who have taken two ArtReach classes and want to continue to develop their skills and take more advanced lessons. My jaw dropped when I heard about opportunities like a two-semester design course in which Corcoran college students created sound suits like those of artist Nick Cave and collaborated with the ArtReach students, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Beyond collaborations like this, at the end of each year ArtReach students get to see their work hung in the “polished” galleries of the Corcoran, a moving experience that brings their creations to the hallowed walls of the museum.

The Programs in Context

In our joint conversation, both programs noted that DC has an incredible amount of programs and activities, yet there is no comprehensive system of organizing that lets them communicate and collaborate about programs or resources. This conversation was the first time that ArtLab and ArtReach had had a lengthy discussion, and it was enlightening. Green emphasized the possibilities of collaboration, commenting, “Students could get the best of both worlds from visiting both programs.” One program can’t be everything to everyone, so each program consistently works to reach out for other resources and partnerships. A new connection for ArtLab is with Critical Exposure and another partnership is with the Teen Space at the MLK library.

Thomas believes that the strength of these programs lies in giving students the right to interpret art, a sentiment that is crucial to art education at all ages. She discussed the way in which these students communicate within the museum, stating, “They’re used to school and they’re used to home, where there’s a right and there’s a wrong. All of a sudden we’re telling them…a million people can interpret this a million different ways and no one’s wrong. But that can be really intimidating for someone to just then blurt out what they feel…or what they think about something.” The goal is to make students comfortable interpreting art and joining the discussion, and to empower individual opinions. Especially for students who grew up without museums, this kind of support and encouragement has a big impact. ArtLab and ArtReach are enabling students and young artists to develop unique opinions and understandings, an action with enormous power. The excitement and creativity demonstrated in my conversation with Green, Hill, and Thomas points to exciting possibilities for these programs’ continuously innovative approach to lifelong learning and engagement.

Do you have an idea for collaboration, for support, or do you want to know more details? Please contact ArtReach and ArtLab.


Hilary-Morgan Watt is a Plinth contributor for the Mid-Atlantic Region. She has worked in museums and galleries for the last seven years, caring for collections and developing exhibits. Follow her muse-ventures on Twitter, @bluelikechagall.