In the scientific world, the laboratory is a place for inquiry, experimentation, and discovery. And that’s also the case at PlatteForum, an innovative arts center in Denver, Colorado, that has created its own “laboratory” for underserved youth to experiment with the arts. PlatteForum’s ArtLab program thrusts 15 high school students into an intensive, year-round art-making experience. In the company of resident artists, the teenagers delve into a variety of art forms, confronting challenges and obstacles and making life-changing discoveries about who they are, what they’re capable of achieving, and where they belong in the world.
To identify potential participants, ArtLab staff taps a network of school counselors and social workers, seeking out teens who have an interest in creative expression, but who lack access to the arts and who may be wrestling with challenges at home or in school. Once accepted into the highly competitive program, young people spend Saturdays during the school year, and weekdays in summer, working side by side with master artists on a series of group and individual projects that address social issues affecting the students’ generation. Participants have written a play on teenage homelessness performed at venues around the city, designed billboards on acceptance displayed at major Denver intersections, and created a poignant mural on the hidden problem of child abuse for a child-abuse prevention and treatment center. To instill responsibility and recognize effort, the program pays students a stipend.
One of the many benefits that students gain from their ArtLab experience is a new capacity for tackling life’s challenges. “It’s amazing to have students who maybe never completed a homework assignment or who might be failing all of their classes understand how creative they are and how successful they can be,” remarks Education Director Meagan Terry. “We watch it carry over to their classroom, and then all of a sudden, they’re going on to community college,” she says. In fact, in a city with one of America’s worst high school graduation rates, ArtLab’s seniors routinely graduate from high school, and many go on to graduate from college, often becoming the first person in their families to do so.