Building the Youth Media Arts Community in Boston: A History of RYMAEC
With many divergent philosophies, funding priorities, field-professionalizing efforts and screening venues in the greater Boston-area, it has been a challenge to identify the core community of youth media practitioners.
As a group, we have struggled to determine our common goals and needs, and how to identify to the public who we are and what makes us unique. I have been intrigued by this challenge since I began working in the youth media field as a Boston-based professional in 1993.
But, in 1997, a youth media consortium was birthed.
That year, I was working at the Community Art Center running the Teen Media Program and the Do It Your Damn Self!! National Youth Video Festival. The local youth media field, at that time, consisted of about six agencies and individuals who were working with youth in various settings.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council was funding most of us through its YouthReach program, and the New England Film and Video Festival (NEFVF) still existed through Boston Film and Video Foundation (BFVF). Three of the youth programs still exist today, but neither NEFVF nor BFVF survived.
After many conversations with Jared Katsiane, one of the youth media practitioners, we agreed it would be beneficial and fun to have our students meet regularly and share their work. The result gave rise to the Reel Eyes Consortium, a traveling presentation of youth work that screened in each of the youth programs’ neighborhoods or institutions, culminating at the Museum of Fine Arts.
In those days, egos in the field were big, as the field was fresh and more funding was available. To prove your program was the most deserving was sometimes weighted more heavily than community building for the welfare of us all. For this reason, the consortium dissolved, and Jared and I vowed not to put effort into it again until the climate changed and funding was available for the consortium itself. We continued to work together unofficially, as we had been doing prior.
In 2003, I left the Community Art Center and decided to leave the world of youth media, returning to school. Yet, a week later, I applied to and was hired to run the Fast Forward Teen Video Program at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), where I currently work.
Shortly after I started at the ICA I suggested that the institute support a youth media consortium. The ICA agreed, and began to support the consortium first, as a fiscal sponsor, and eventually as a part of the ICA’s program budget, as part of a 3-year Wallace Foundation grant.
Together, the consortium established an advisory group, created a website, and formalized our mission, which is: “to create a community of Boston area individuals, organizations, and community-based groups committed to supporting and strengthening the youth media arts field through exchanging information, resources, and youth-produced media.”
With its latest iteration, the Regional Youth Media Arts Education Consortium (RYMAEC), in discussion to be a permanent program at the ICA, we have discovered the benefits of being affiliated with a large cultural institution while simultaneously we grapple with how that relationship influences the practice and perception of the community.
At the same time that I was excited to finally have our vision funded, I was unsure of how an institution might exert its own mission and practice, voluntarily or not. Under the umbrella of the ICA, the immediate challenge for me was to define RYMAEC in such a way that it maintained its identity as a true consortium with decision-making coming form its members.
Another challenge was to protect RYMAEC from being absorbed into a position or to a budget line within the institution. I wanted to ensure that the consortium always had sufficient time and money allotted to it as a unique effort.
In addition, outside of the institution, the field had changed. Youth media in Boston was no longer 6 individuals working in organizations with a few kids. It was every student with a cell phone, every teacher with some excitement for the Internet and iMovie; it was Drupal, Ning, Facebook and YouTube.
As we witnessed the youth media field changing, we realized that those of us who had been doing this for 10 years or more have much to offer the field, but that the new developments in the technology along with the new way in which it is being used has developed a new generation of “experts.” Connecting these generations and experiences with each other would be of great benefit to the field and the youth we all serve. As a consortium, we created these connections through two actions that yielded key insights.
First, we formalized the make up of the advisory board by identifying 12 types of institutions or individuals who would represent that breadth of experience, from small non-profits to institutions of higher education. Having a representative from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, a Public Access Station Staff member, a Boston Public School teacher and a filmmaker who works in a small non-profit in a small city outside of Boston allowed us to more fully understand the possible uses and needs of curricula and practice in youth media arts. The diverse representatives allow us to be more creative and inclusive in our outreach to attract and support those who are doing this work.
Secondly, we decided to risk over-population in our consortium and offer an event that was open to all who were working with new media technologies in education. Our first “Web 2.0penMic” was a success, allowing public school teachers stand up next to Second Life Gurus, each demonstrating her skills and enthusiasm for new media technologies and arts. By opening up this presentation and dialogue to a wide spectrum of educators, we were taking a risk by suggesting that we were not the experts, and that our community might benefit from being larger than just the youth media arts teachers.
Beth Balliro, RYMAEC Advisory group member and Visual Arts teacher at the Boston Arts Academy, attended the event and remarked, “It was inspiring to see non-media teachers taking risks and exploring ways that new technologies could enhance their academic curricula.”
Through all of this, my fear of the influence of the institution had turned into a healthy dialogue between myself and my colleagues at the ICA about how membership of a self-determining consortium, many of whom work outside of the scope of the “art” world, can exist as, and be funded by, a program of a contemporary art institution.
I have come to appreciate how the perception of such an institution can attract a wider following. Contemporary art is highlighted by experimental uses of information and technology, so the stage is set for our members to feel comfortable taking risks. Furthermore, the expectations of attending an event at such an institution are already met through the perception, setting and exhibition nature of the institute.
Although community building is a concerted effort between individuals, organizations, and time, in Boston we have learned that a mix of patience and persistence has allowed programs to establish roots deep enough to sustain and build a lasting consortium. As a collective, we recognize that we cannot stay relevant and flourish if we are unwilling to embrace, celebrate and incorporate new ideas and individuals into our curricula and methodology. Furthermore, we have learned that patience and longevity can lead to the right partners, even if they are as unlikely as I might have guessed RYMAEC and the ICA would be. We must actively communicate with as many relevant community members and institutions as possible in order to support youth media’s efforts to navigate through the ever-changing world of media, art and technology.
Joseph Douillette is a video artist and educator who lives and works in the Boston area. Since 2003, he has directed the Fast Forward Teen Video Program at the Institute of Contemporary Art. He has directed various other youth media art programs, including the Teen Media Program/Do It Your Damn Self!! Youth Video Festival at the Community Art Center, and the Video Program at the Creative Arts at Park Summer program in Brookline. Joe served on the Board of Directors of Cambridge Community Television from 2000–2008. He also runs Egg Rock Media, a local media production and consulting business, and JP Sucks, a local gourmet lollipop company. Joe has two daughters and he oversees the work of about 20,000 honeybees.