Around the Institute

Aspen Challenge: The Next Generation Will Save the Arts

January 24, 2014  • Laura Zabel, Guest Blogger

The Aspen Challenge — launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation — provides a platform, inspiration, and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the world’s most critical problems by engaging with leading global visionaries, artists, and entrepreneurs. Denver Public Schools will send 20 teams from 20 schools to compete between January 10 and March 1, 2014. Here, Laura Zabel, the executive director of Springboard for the Arts, a community development organization for artists in St. Paul, Minn. explains why she thinks the future of our country’s youth is bright.

Above, Zabel challenges Denver youth to address community issues with art at the 2014 Aspen Challenge: Denver.

Everything is going to be fine. Having spent some time with the young people involved in the Aspen Challenge in Denver recently, I am inspired and hopeful about the future of the arts, and indeed, the future of our country.

Our challenges in the arts and culture field are well-documented: aging audiences, changing demographics, unprecedented access to digital forms of culture, and so on. Leaders in the arts spend a lot of time theorizing about these challenges. But for all our talk of creativity and innovation, we’re not a very fast-changing bunch. Although, of course, there are bright spots. For the most part we seem to accept incremental progress on issues of equity and access and as a sector we’ve arrived kicking and screaming in the digital age.

My sense is that the next generation will not accept this pace of change and will quickly and capably take matters into their own hands. I believe that our young people are exactly the people we need — people who will stop considering the problem and get to the hard (and fun) work of making change. Recently, the students of the Denver Public Schools asked me difficult, interesting, and creative questions and they demonstrated what I think are some of the most exciting traits of their generation, including:

A comfort with the hard issues: Teens don’t view our country’s changing demographics as a problem to be “solved,” or even really a challenge. Instead, they see these changes as inevitable, and an opportunity. I am consistently surprised by their ease and depth of understanding of issues of equity, privilege, and power. These young people understand the need for system change, but with less of the “who needs the system anyway?” attitude of previous generations.

An awareness of their global connection: This generation accepts technology and digital tools as a necessary and core part of our culture. They are neither threatened by the changes that these tools make possible, nor do they believe that technology can fix everything. These are tools for connection and communication, just like a printing press or party line telephone. And these tools also make teens much more connected to the world around them — the issues, cultures, and ideas of the globe are literally at their fingertips. 

Love and grit: A common critique of young people is that they expect too much inspiration and passion in their work — that they aren’t going to be satisfied with “a good job” in the way that their parents might have been. But without the passion for a cause, how else will they ever develop the grit and tenacity necessary to lead us through the scale of change that is needed? I say keep your expectations high and demand passion from yourself and your work. 

These traits are precisely the things the arts sector needs right now. We need to have real, authentic conversations about our relevance, we need to ask the hard questions about who we are serving, we need to more readily accept technology’s role in our work, and above all, the arts need passionate leaders. We need leaders who see the potential for weaving art and creativity into the solutions to all the challenges faced by our neighborhoods, our cities, and our world. And I believe this generation will deliver on these challenges in a big way. So please, young people, don’t wait around for someone to invite you, or ask you, or tell you — the world desperately needs your ideas, your solutions, and your love.