The Cleveland Museum of Art is giving high school students a chance to express themselves through the curatorial arts. The pilot program, Currently Under Curation (CUC), was launched in 2018 as part of the Cleveland Foundation’s Arts Mastery Initiative. Curating is a word that’s been watered down in recent years as social media influencers “curate” their favorite things in their feeds, or boutique stores “curate” the products they sell. Lead by Darius Steward and Sabine Kretzschmar, the program introduces students to curatorial concepts and fundamental museum skills.

It’s a very unusual program in that the CMA has put a great deal of trust into the hands of teenagers. These students give voice to their vision through the platform that is the museum. Kretzschmar says, “It’s really about welcoming teens into the museum space. Especially those that might feel that the museum isn’t for them.” The CUC program has worked with the Cleveland Public Library and Zygote Press, creating exhibitions on WPA prints, examining aesthetics and techniques in printmaking, and exploring self-portraits. They have also worked with contemporary artists, Amber N. Ford, Kristen Cliffel, Timothy Callaghan, and Scott Goss, taking a closer look at their works. Plans for future exhibitions include working closely with the CAN Triennial as part of their curatorial team.

The program’s most recent venture, Rerun, is a large-scale exhibition of the internationally-acclaimed artist, Laura Owens, at Transformer Station. Working with CMA staff and Owens, the students went through the rigorous process of developing an exhibition from concept to installation and beyond, learning museum basics and the curation process. The teens—Jamal Carter, Xyhair Davis, Skylar Fleming, Yomi Gonzalez, Joseph Hlavac, Agatha Mathoslah, Arica McKinney, Maya Peroune, and Deonta Steele—each connected works from the CMA’s education collection and related them back to Owens’ work. Kretzschmar explains, “They were given so much power and so much advocacy to do what they wanted to do and to insert themselves in it.”

The CMA’s curator of contemporary art, Emily Liebert, reached out to Owens to discuss a possible exhibition. When Owens, who was raised in Northeast Ohio, learned of the curatorial program, she knew she wanted to work with students. Giving back to the community where she grew up was important to Owens. She was able to work with teens who are just starting off on their journey in the arts. It’s a type of mentorship that she wishes she had had in her youth.

Owens would periodically come to Cleveland to meet with the students. They talked about her body of work and would walk through the CMA galleries together. They would have meals together and discuss what they saw and what connections could be made. Then they would go through the CMA’s education collection. Established in 1914, the collection is intended to engage participants in hands-on experiences for active learning. Seeing both the collection and the references to art history in Owens’ work, the students developed a time travel theme for the exhibition.

Each student submitted a group of images and explained why they thought the pieces should be included. This began a more familiar curatorial practice. Works were printed out and spread across a table. They questioned if pieces were too similar and which works were needed to tell the time travel story. Jamal Carter explains that the process “helps you view the perspective of other people when you’re curating. You have to know what would stand out to the next person.” Gallery space and availability of works were considered, and written labels went through the full editing process. “I learned how precise everything runs at the museum. …the museum taught me how to structure myself in the art world to produce the best quality,” Carter explains. From color schemes to graphics, the CMA staff worked alongside the students, assisting them in articulating their vision.

It’s not always obvious why certain works were chosen, but each student got something they really connected with into the exhibition. One might think that teens would be interested in social justice issues, but many are looking to explore and express self-identity. This pairs nicely with Owens’ work as she questions the nature of painting and redefines the media through technique.

The exhibition connects youth programs from the museum’s history to their current youth programs. “We were looking at high-schoolers through the ages,” Kretzschmar explains. Included in the show is a block-printed alphabet book and an embroidered sampler made by students at Fairmont Junior High School from the 1920s. Each had been part of CMA outreach programs. From the book to the sampler, from Owens to the CUC students, each component of the exhibition was inspired by the museum and its relationships with youth, including work Owens created in high school.

There were a number of unknowns that the teens also learned how to manage. Owens decided to expand on the alphabet book, taking images from its pages to create the wallpaper in the installation. She even made a new painting for the show, neither of which were seen until they were unpacked. Because of the pandemic, the artist worked from France with her studio in Los Angeles, while coordinating with CMA staff and communicating with students via Zoom. The pandemic-delayed exhibition threw the students a curveball. Several selected works became unavailable, so alternatives had to be selected. For instance, the frieze of clocks had to be replaced with a different set. It’s a valuable lesson in the art of curation: an exhibition is never quite set in stone until it’s installed on the walls.

But the students made the best of things. As their planned programming had been canceled, they created new online projects in the form of memes. Based on works from the CMA’s collection, the memes continue the time travel theme, mixing history with current trends in digital communication. They also produced a fictional newspaper in the style of 1930s editorial stories. And they developed a time capsule that will be sealed, and opened in ten years.

Of the experience, Carter recalls that if felt little “mysterious” to work with Owens, but that she was able to connect with him: “Working with Laura brought me to my highest peak of inspiration when at the time I didn’t have any, and for that I’m grateful.” Acquiring a new appreciation for art, Carter intends to pursue photography and videography and has been exhibiting his work at RampArts gallery. The Currently Under Curation program has given these students an in-depth look at how museums function.

“They are professionally done exhibitions, but then there are rules broken that art historical curators would never do,” Kretzschmar says. “There’s a freshness… It’s fun to see their choices.” It’s refreshing to see the Cleveland Museum of Art devoting a youth program to a subject that many don’t necessarily think of as both a scholarly and an artistic practice. This program allows us to consider the larger contribution that teens make in our communities and our culture.