Teenage Art Gallery: Innovative Youths Redefining Contemporary Art

By the time aspiring painter Audrey Banks became a teenager, she already knew a lot about the life of a struggling artist. She had paid annual summer visits to her London-based fine-artist aunt, who would take Audrey to bohemian restaurants and talk with her for hours – recounting the extensive schooling, the part-time jobs to pay the bills, the frustrating time lapses waiting for commissions. Wondering how she might get a jump on this long road ahead, in 2009, a 15-year-old Audrey got the idea to start an art gallery for teenagers.

Audrey rounded up a group of her fellow students from Bard High School in Alphabet City, and after more than a year of brainstorming and planning, the aptly named Teenage Art Gallery (TAG) was officially underway by December 2010. The group secured a gallery space – the Open Center meditation and healing facility on 30th street, which offers free space to artists on a monthly basis – then set out for submissions, spreading the word through social media (they made about 6000 Facebook friends) and after-school programs. Over the course of four months, about 700 artists between the ages of 12 and 19 submitted pictures of their work via email. Audrey and her co-founders voted to narrow down their favorites.

The TAG team launched a publicity campaign, too: blasting out press releases to local newspapers and magazines, and hanging hundreds of red balloons in Washington Square Park; emblazoned with the words “Pop Me”, the balloons yielded the June 2011 date and details of their exhibit. The crowd-funding website Kickstarter helped cover the group’s expenses.

The event turned out 250 people and displayed a total of 37 pieces of teen work, including photography, sculpture, and performance art; major media outlets fromNew York magazine to the New York Times to the Huffington Post covered it. Soon, more young talents from across the country were eager to send in submissions. A second TAG exhibit was held this March, at the Rogue Gallery in Chelsea (it featured the painting of a boy as young as 11, whose non-teen status was overlooked because his skills were so impressive).

While some long-working artists have criticized the TAG movement (mostly on Twitter), insisting that these teenage creative types haven’t earned their stripes, the buzz has nonetheless carried abroad – there are now TAG branches in Florence, Italy, and Frankfurt, Germany, thanks to the international exposure of theTimes. A third NYC exhibition is scheduled for June 12th at the Salon 94 Freeman Gallery (call for details).

TAG’s founding member had minimal involvement in the organization’s European offshoots, but Audrey did consult with their teams, sharing her timelines and guidelines for pulling off a successful show. Now 18, Audrey is headed for college in the fall and happy to pass down the reigns to the next generation of young artists. In a way, the transition mirrors her paintings, which often depict a woman’s evolution – revisiting themes like female empowerment and milestones like motherhood. Her work, the teenager says, is a “reflection of my place within the community.”

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