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Visual Arts Council


In keeping with Ann Arbor Neutral Zone’s mission of youth directed programming and leadership, its Visual Arts Council is an advisory board of students, open to teens of any background who want to participate in directing the organization’s arts-related activities. Teens are responsible for planning and organizing events, bringing in artists from the community, and innovating new programming. 
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of it purpose and who it serves.
Neutral Zone Visual Arts Coordinator Mary Thiefels: The Visual Arts Council (VAC) is a leadership group comprised of teens that act as my advisors. We meet weekly to develop programming and plan events such as art shows, workshops, and gallery tours. We have 11 to 15 very active members, and a total of about 25 who regularly participate. Lately, we’ve been discussing topics like how to vet new members -- whether there should be an application process, portfolios, etc. Making, observing, and thinking about art is so expansive, so we’ve been tackling the question of how to make ourselves available to
Making, observing, and thinking about art is so expansive, so we’ve been tackling the question of how to make ourselves available to everyone.
What really differentiates this program?
We try to give teens a lot of exposure to new techniques and styles [of art]. We encourage self-exploration and exploration of new materials and ideas. There’s a lot of choice and freedom for youth to delve into their creativity, without the pressure of assignments or grades. That said, our programs are designed to compliment what students are doing in school, not compete with it. We also have a visiting artist series, where artists come in and do projects or crafts with the youth. And we deal with practical, hands-on information, like how to organize artwork into a portfolio, how to get into a gallery, and how to take their artistic endeavors to the next level.
What are the keys to success for your program?
I think it’s important that any youth can walk into the Neutral Zone; it’s very accessible, with low to no cost to participate. There are lots of opportunities to gain exposure to different ideas and lots of room and potential to explore and create an individual identity through the arts. I also think empowering the youth with decision-making is key. They come up with the
There are lots of opportunities to gain exposure to different ideas and lots of room and potential to explore and create an individual identity through the arts.
ideas, and I’m there to offer guidance and support. For example, they’ve come to me with entrepreneurial ideas about selling their art; my job is to outline the steps to get them toward that big idea or goal.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
As with many nonprofits, maintaining reasonable programming within a reasonable budget and prioritizing what’s feasible are challenges we deal with regularly. Working with limited resources forces us to be more creative. I’d like to see more students coming in, so another challenge we’re facing is how to recruit or get the word out -- how to expand the reach. The teens on the VAC had a great idea to create a monthly ‘zine that could be widely distributed throughout high schools, so youth can see what we’re up to here. They’ve also initiated discussions on selling their art to raise funds.
How do you innovate programming? Where do the ideas come from? How do you know if they are going to work?
There are so many different trends and scenes in the art world; we try to keep youth up on those trends, how they relate to art historically, and how they have given people voice over the years. We bring in visiting artists, to get the kids excited about something totally new. We also try to examine what opportunity looks like after high school, whether or not they go on to art school. A lot of it is very one-on-one and takes place through personal conversations with each student. The core concept of the VAC, though, is youth driven leadership, so they’re really the ones coming up with many of the programming ideas through our meetings and discussions.
What are people in your program most inspired by? 
I asked my teens this question, and they responded that it was inspiring to be able to come here into a safe space, free of judgment and discrimination, and just be themselves. Some are very active and outspoken; others are more into their work, but everyone has the freedom to be who they want to be and learn from each other’s differences. They’re inspired by new challenges and choices; exploring new mediums, and doing work collaboratively. They’re also inspired by the opportunity to be leaders and to take that into their personal lives.
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  • The Neutral Zone
    The Neutral Zone is a diverse, youth-driven teen center dedicated to promoting personal growth through artistic expression, community leadership and the exchange of ideas.


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