What can you do with an arts degree?
The Center for Visual Art’s summer Art + Action Lab Teen Internship helps answer that question.
“What are you going to do with an arts degree?”
Students studying the creative arts are likely familiar with this dreaded question, which can seem like a bit of a dig. Art students may not have clear-cut career objectives, like premed students might, but still, it’s a valid question. What do you do with an art degree?
Enter the Center for Visual Art — Metropolitan State University of Denver’s off-campus art gallery and art-education hub. Each year, the CVA hosts its Art + Action Lab Teen Internships geared toward high school students interested in the arts. The internships help them visualize creative careers in the real world.
A window into creative careers
The CVA’s 2023 summer internship runs from July 12 to Aug. 9. The monthlong experience is open to high school teens in metro Denver with an interest in art. No experience or completed artwork is necessary to apply.
Katie Taft, education manager at CVA, is uniquely suited to run the program. She has been a teacher, a studio artist and a hot-dog vendor, all while pursuing her artistic endeavors. And for the past six years, she has been running the Art + Action Lab. Taft works with MSU Denver students to create the program curriculum.
“We want to give the teens a wide understanding of what’s in Denver, as well as personal connections to actual individuals who are doing the work that they might want to be doing,” Taft said.
Spoiler alert: You don’t have to be a studio artist to have a creative career.
Taft offers students the chance to connect with many kinds of creative professionals. Guest speakers this summer include a tattoo artist, a filmmaker, a video producer and a creative-services manager. During the internship, teens learn about different careers, participate in skill-building workshops and even complete a group project. This year, they’re focused on experimental filmmaking.
Thomas Jefferson High School senior Ruth Danquah is participating in this summer’s internship. She learned about the opportunity through her photography teacher.
“I thought I wasn’t going to connect with anybody, but soon enough, I made four or five friends,” Danquah said. She added that she and the other participants have a lot of similar interests, which has been a pleasant surprise.
An important note: The internship is paid. “We didn’t want it to be a situation where it was just an opportunity for kids that didn’t need jobs,” Taft said, adding that it would create inequity to do so. “Fundraising is a challenge, but we feel really strongly about it. It’s created a situation where some high school students are participating when they may not have.”
The Art + Action Lab internship is layered with possibilities to learn and grow. CVA Director and Curator Cecily Cullen notes that the program helps spur multidirectional mentoring opportunities.
“We have high school students who are interns, and they are led by MSU Denver students who are employees of CVA,” Cullen said. “And then the college students are being mentored by Katie and the rest of our full-time staff. And then, of course, we have this opportunity to learn from the MSU Denver students and interns.”
MSU Denver student Astrid Wenham, who uses they/them pronouns, is leading this summer’s program. Wenham is taking classes at MSU Denver while working in the CVA’s workforce-development program, which functions like a job and pays hourly.
“As a teaching apprentice, I learn how to lead a room, lesson-plan, build a relationship with the teens and work dynamically with students like me,” Wenham said. “As someone who is generally pretty indecisive, this is a chance for me to be able to learn about a profession I care about, without having to dedicate my entire education to it before knowing what I want.”
Taft also praises the mentorship opportunities available for all involved. “It’s nice to have these layers of high school students, college students and creative professionals all working toward the same goal of getting these kids in the art world,” she said.
All about networking
“A big part of what we talk about is networking,” Taft said. “I mean, that’s really how anybody gets any kind of job, but it’s definitely true in the creative industry.”
In fact, most of the guest artists whom Taft brings in are people she has known for years. She tells the students candidly how they met and how they’ve helped one another personally and professionally. Taft draws heavily on her career journey to show students what’s possible when you think about your passions and connect with other creative individuals.
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The idea works. Danquah has just met the other dozen or so students in the program, but she said she plans to maintain the connections. For Wenham, the chance to connect with near-peers has been eye-opening.
“The best part of this program has been the teens. Everyone comes in so shy, especially me,” Wenham said. “I feel like working with a group of younger people has been amazing for me to break down my walls and learn how to engage with strangers.”
Making connections and building networks at a young age is important for teens, especially as they begin to consider their future careers.
“A lot of really important skills come from studying art,” Cullen said. “Seeing possibilities, being creative, developing critical thinking are all things that come from studying art, and those skills can be applied in a lot of different careers. So the possibilities really are endless.”