Best Practices in Visual Arts Programming for Youth

What are the visual arts?

Visual arts includes paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, quilts, graphic design, photography, printmaking, and many other art forms, also known as art media (mediums if using singular form). The main idea behind the term is that the end product is artwork that is appreciated for its visual properties. Dance performances, music, and other types of art expression may be visual in part but they also have other art properties, such as the need to listen or move. A more specialized definition of the term by the Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought defines visual arts as “the practice of shaping material, such as wood or stone, or applying pigment to a flat or other surface, with the intention of representing an idea, experience, or emotion” (1993, para. 1).

What is visual arts programming?

Visual arts programming is the creation of activities for a group of persons that involve the creation and examination of visual arts. For example, one visual arts program for youth at a library might be to have kids create a drawing of their favorite character from a book or television show. While a visual arts program can be a one-time event, visual arts programming is the creation and maintenance of multiple visual arts programs or events for a specific audience and with a set purpose(s).

When did visual arts programming begin in the United States?

Visual arts programming has been around for as long as people have been interested in creating and viewing visual art within groups. Visual arts programming in American schools and libraries is a more recent occurrence that for the most part began in the early 20th century as a means of further educating Americans, particularly the immigrant population, about culture and for them to have socially acceptable ways of expressing themselves (Rabkin & Hedberg, 2011). In regards to all forms of arts programming for youth, according to the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts as described by Rabkin & Hedberg, arts education of those younger than eighteen years-old reached its peak around 1985 with about 55% of all participants having some form of arts education, whether it be music, visual arts, or another art form. Art education has been decreasing in frequency in schools and elsewhere since then, largely due to financial cuts in schools. The study also found that Hispanic American and African American populations are losing their art education at a faster and more significant rate than white Americans. Childhood education in visual arts specifically was less than the study years of 2002, 1992, and 1982, with a decline from 36.1% to 25.7% between 1982 and 2008.

Why does visual arts programming exist?

The most basic reasons for why visual arts programming exists is that it provides fun, creative, challenging, emotionally rewarding, and educational experiences outside of school, work, or other locations. More specifically, according to Rabkin & Hedberg, visual arts programming exists because it helps improve a persons’ academic skills, career skills, independence, and other life skills. They also say that it enhances peoples’ ability to understand and appreciate forms of “expression, symbol systems, aesthetics, and the cultural context in which the arts are embedded,” and that it encourages art appreciation as an adult (2011, p. 20). According to a study by Shannon Crawford Barniskis the majority of librarians she surveyed believe that arts programming is important for the following reasons: Arts programming provides “equal access to artistic opportunities,” help with “getting teens in the door,” provides “cognitive-emotional benefits,” and art programs are “supporting lifelong learning” (2013, p. 83). Another reason that visual arts programming exists, according to author Shaffer, is that children may use visual arts as a way to “explore materials” (2004, p. 42). Author Dubin believes that art programs may provide teens with an outlet to help them “improve their attitudes” and “control their anger” (2010, para. 29).

How to make a successful visual arts program

A helpful program approach, one which is also commonly expected to be used by librarians applying for grant funding, is Outcomes Based Planning and Evaluation (OBPE) (Anderson, n.d.). This method is just as it sounds. Planning and evaluations are based upon the outcomes that a librarian or library wants to achieve. So a visual arts program should be planned according to desired outcomes.

The following guidelines are a compilation of ideas taken from Anderson, Koke and Dierking (n.d.; 2007), and others. These guidelines give strategies for how to create a successful visual arts program in a series of steps. Independent of the authors' advice are the examples included, the elaborations, and the reinterpretations of author content.

1. Research
First you need to know what you and your library or institution are capable of and are willing or wanting to do. For example, maybe you hold library programming events at a local community center because your library does not have a room for your program. This may limit or increase your ability to do certain things. Patrons’ inability to use library desktop computers at the community center would be one limitation. Some staff members or even community members may have particular skills that they could contribute. Do not assume that they will want to but have discussions with your social networks to determine what might work and who is willing to help. You should also have an idea of what you can afford and with what areas you may need financial help with. Second, you should decide whom your visual arts program will be for, such as age ranges and social affiliations. Once you know who you want to program for learn more about the needs of that specific group and what they would like to do.

2. Think critically, create outcomes, create goals
When you have ideas for what your intended program audience wants to do, see if these needs and wants match with your library or institution’s desired outcomes. For example, if survey results tell you that teens in your area want to have a weekly photography club and one of your outcomes is increased social interaction between teens, will the photography club meet this outcome? You may not know at first but you should be able to explain why you believe it would work and be able to evaluate your results later to see if this outcome was achieved. Kathy Dempsey suggests to question whether or not program attendees might be accomplishing program outcomes elsewhere, such as at an after-school activity (n.d.). Make your desired outcome(s) as specific as possible. After gathering information and deciding upon outcome(s) you should form a developed set of goals that you plan to meet in order to reach your intended outcome(s).

3. Develop program and communication methods
After goals are decided upon the program itself can be developed. This includes specific activities that will occur, where they will occur, and other concrete details. Communication methods between the program initiator(s), creator(s), program attendees and others should be decided while creating the program as well. For example, if program members will be e-mailed about events then it should be decided when they will be e-mailed, what will be said in the e-mail(s), and other information related to that communication method.

4. Decide upon evaluation methods to be used
Evaluation methods of the program, including communication methods evaluation, should be specific, consistent, and easy to interpret later by the program creator as well as by other possible evaluators such as future staff members. If a program is adjusted or changed to meet an outcome(s), or if new outcome(s) are created, the program should be evaluated so that past program activities, attendance, and other valuable information can be compared with to make appropriate, logical changes as needed and in the specific area(s) that they are needed in.

5. Final steps
Once your program-building plans are complete then you may choose to: start your program, find more collaborative partners within or outside of your institution to work with, find funders, or complete other steps that are necessary for your specific needs.

How to create a user survey

In order to create a successful survey Kathy Dempsey has some great suggestions. They are:
1. “Interest does not always translate into action!”(para. 16)
2. “Beware open-ended questions.” (para. 17)
3. “Survey Length Matters” (heading below para. 19)
4. “Asking about months and weeks matters as much as asking about days and hours” (para. 23)
5. Don’t use library lingo
6. “One Survey Does Not Fit All” (heading below para. 24)
7. “Avoid Leading Questions” (heading below para. 25, n.d.)

How to evaluate a visual arts program

Watkins suggests to “keep evaluation forms short and to the point and consider incentives,” “don’t just quantify, qualify,” and to “organize evaluation forms and survey for easy tabulation” (n.d., para. 5).

Things NOT to do when creating a visual arts program for youth

Do not create “‘strict guidelines’” and “‘PowerPoints’” unless you have a very good reason(s) to do so (Barniskis, 2013, p. 91).

Helpful ideas for creating a successful visual arts program for youth

Ideas by Shaffer:
Have an “art corner” and change “materials every few weeks”
“Provide a place to exhibit artwork”
“Find art in the everyday world”
Read “books honored for their outstanding illustrations”
Describe “actual works of art"
Offer food
Offer prizes (2004, p. 41)

Ideas by Barniskis and by the librarians she surveyed:
Weird or unusual topics
Henna tattooing
Superhero activities
Having a person that youth can relate to
Activities with duct tape
“Quick, wearable, or otherwise practical and involve minimal presentation” (p. 85)
Activities where kids are physically involved
Time to ask questions
Loose structure
Social time
Come-and-go as you please policy
“'Anything 3-dimensional that allows the use of tools (sharp things! power tools! glue guns!)—the thought of which makes many adults cringe’” (2013, p. 95)

Other author’s ideas

Partnerships that involve schools and school artwork (Leddy, n.d.)
Framed fine art prints on display and/or available for check-out at library (Grieco, n.d.)

Advice for teachers of visual arts programming

Shaffer’s advice:
“Younger children will probably need guidance for use and clean-up of materials” (p. 41)
Materials should be physically safe for youth to use and age-appropriate
Ask youth questions about their creations
Take trips
A few exhibits may be more effective for programming than viewing every exhibit offered (2004)

Leddy’s advice:
“Don’t be afraid to ask anyone you’d like to host, even if they’re famous” (para. 21)
“Use what you’ve got” (n.d., para. 22)

Barniskis’s and surveyed librarians’ advice:
“‘Teens are a hard sell, if you don't get them within the first five to ten minutes they will leave the room’” (2013, p. 94)
Understand that different program attendees will have different “ability levels” (Barniskis, 2013, p. 89)
“Librarian participation” may be “essential to building relationships” with teens (Barniskis, 2013, p. 89)

Dubin’s advice:
“‘When you're talking about 15-year-olds who are homeless or 14-year-olds who have never known parents and have been in four different foster homes, consistency is coveted’” (2010, para. 11)

Web Resources for Further Research

Library and education statistics

Grants and other funding resources

Illinois resources

Informative presentations and videos on visual arts education

Awards for book illustrators

Visual arts history, lesson plans, and similar resources

Visual arts programming for youth ideas/activities;jsessionid=828DA6E9C02EE8EFB19F9BBF5651A21B
Visual arts online games for youth

Visual arts websites for youth to explore*&selected_facets=supplemental_curriculum_hierarchy_nodes%3Aecd15e32-1476-401c-a6b6-e127b99ff186&selected_facets=supplemental_curriculum_hierarchy_nodes%3A0c2fcfa0-50e9-42ab-931d-7810f6fd3db6&selected_facets=grades_exact%3A9&selected_facets=grades_exact%3A10&selected_facets=grades_exact%3A11&selected_facets=grades_exact%3A12&selected_facets=resource_distribution_type_exact%3A0&display=9-12

Anderson, A. (n.d.). Meeting needs and making a difference: Outcomes based planning and evaluation. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Art(s), Visual. (1993). In Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought online. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Barniskis, S.C. (2013, March 27). Teaching art to teens in public libraries. Routledge. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Dempsey, K. (n.d.). Boost survey results with carefully crafted questions. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Dubin, J. (2010, Fall). An artful summer: A job program inspires creativity and teaches responsibility. American Educator, 34(3), 18. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Grieco, L. (n.d.). The rural library as the focal point of learning and culture. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Koke, J., & Dierking, L. (2007) Nine to nineteen: Youth in museums and libraries: A practitioner's guide. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Leddy, C. (n.d.). Programming on a (long, colorful) shoestring. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from

Rabkin, N., & Hedberg, E.C. (2011, February). National Endowment for the Arts
Arts education in America: What the declines mean for arts participation. Chicago, IL: NORC at the University of Chicago. Retrieved on November 30, 2013 from

Shaffer, S. (Ed.). (2004). Imagine! Introducing your child to the arts (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved on November 30, 2013 from

Watkins, C. (n.d.). Evaluation of cultural programs. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from