Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’ registrar Jessi Cerutti explained to the teenagers sitting before her that sometimes her job is weird.
She once had to get a marble bust repaired after a delivery driver backed into it, sending it tumbling from its pedestal. She had a brass plant repaired after two of its leaves broke off during shipment. One artist’s sculpture included crushed cow bones that had to be unpacked and arranged.
“There’s never a dull moment,” she said. “Which I do appreciate about this job.”
But on this day, she stood in front of a painting on a canvas by local artist Lizzy Martinez. She wanted to show the teens how to properly unwrap it. The teens spent six weeks this summer organizing an exhibition from start to finish as part of the museum’s Teen Museum Studies program. The teens selected Martinez as their artist, and her show opens Friday.
CAM has offered the program since 2010, with up to a dozen participants each summer. Students in grades 9 through 12 are eligible to apply. Eight teens — all young women — were in the program this summer.
The teens met two afternoons a week, working with staff members from all departments, from accounting to public relations to curatorial. They each receive a $300 stipend for their work.
“The eight of us were like a mini version of the people working in administration right now,” said Katherine “Katie” Shaw, 15, a junior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School. She’s the editor of her school’s newspaper and used those skills to come up with a program for the show.
They watched as Cerutti donned cotton gloves to unwrap Martinez’s painting, called “Introduction to the Wolf.” She explained that, in the art world, it’s common to leave “courtesy tabs” on tape to make it easier for workers to unpack pieces. She noted the importance of inspecting works for possible flaws and marking them on a condition-report sheet.
The young curators also met with Martinez herself. She knew when she applied for the show that she would work with teenagers to put it together. She’s taught students at the university level, and this program seemed to be more informal and easier than a typical class, she said. “When I’m teaching, it’s ‘do this the proper way.’ But with these guys, I say, ‘this is the proper way, but here are all the sneaky tricks. Or here’s all the backstories.’”
The exhibition is called “Seeing Red,” a re-examination of the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” Originally, Martinez had titled the show “Forest for the Trees,” but the teens came up with the new name because it evoked different meanings and feelings: violence, blood, anger. Martinez was open to their ideas.
“There’s this idea or quality of ‘anything can happen,’” she said. “Let’s bounce ideas off in this safe, open space.”
The students spoke to Martinez more about setup for the show: where to get dress forms for a wolf costume, at what volume to play a soundtrack of music and background noises, reviewing questions for the artist’s talk.
But as the students completed tasks on their to-do list, other things were happening.
Randice Reed, 16, a student at Cardinal Ritter College Prep, has been drawing since she was little and worked on a promotional flyer for the event. She thinks it would be nice to work in a museum one day and connected with the messages of feminism and nonviolence in Martinez’s work.
Jose Garza, museum educator and one of the leaders of the program, along with learning and engagement intern Clara Abbott, suggested Reed could make her flyer look like an old movie poster or a cover of a pulp-fiction novel.
At a July meeting with Martinez, Reed tilted a laptop to show the mockup for the first time. Martinez peered at it. “I like it,” she said.
A smile washed over Reed’s face, and she put her hand to her heart.
For Shelby Morgan, 18, who is a freshman at Webster University studying creative writing and teaching, the program was a chance to be surrounded by creative people. She particularly enjoyed visiting Martinez at her home studio in University City.
“Seeing the bare bones of her studio, she’s listening to music, her dog is sitting next to her. It’s pretty much what I do,” Morgan said. “I think it was cool because it was like, ‘Hey, that could be me.’ That could be any of us in a few years.”