With a simple blue sundress and patriotically-colored eye glitter, 25-year-old Isabella Bustamante practically looks like she could be a teen herself. That’s not to say she’s immature, rather quite the opposite. She is the sole founder and director of Teen Art Salon, a new “arts platform that supports, develops, and promotes adolescent artists across North America.” Barely a few months old, Teen Art Salon’s main feature is its open studio space in Long Island City. Shared with a yoga studio that Bustamante’s mother operates, it is free for teens to use.
TAS just had its first exhibition, Juvenilia, at miLES in the Lower East Side; it exclusively featured work by artists between 13 and 19 years old.
After getting a BA in Art History from Fordham, Bustamante received her MA in the History of Art with a specialization in Globalization and Contemporary Art from London’s Courtauld Institute. After that, she spent a few years working for architect David Adjaye, the man behind such ventures as Olso’s Nobel Peace Center and a recent (and controversial) affordable housing complex in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.
Despite a relatively bustling life full of art and travel, Bustamante found herself wanting to pursue more creative personal endeavors. She moved back to New York and got back in contact with a couple of the teens she used to babysit.
“We just started talking, and it was my first time interacting with Generation Z. And I was flabbergasted at the amount that they knew about gender, and politics, and racial structuralism, and they way that different countries function, and like, their philosophies on marriage and education reform,” she said. “So I said, “Whoah, you guys are really smart. Could you show me some stuff you’re reading and doing?” And then I started seeing art. And was like, okay, there’s gotta be a way we get people to see this, so it’s not sitting on their hard drive, or desk.”
She then delved into research, taking notice of how urban cities don’t often provide adolescents with the spaces for creativity and exploration that other age groups have.
“Kids have parks to run around, adults have bars to have these great critically engaged moments, but teens are relegated to bathrooms and basements for big moments of discovery. And I said, this is why we don’t have artists. One: there’s no space. Two: there’s no encouragement. It’s kind of like this passive devaluation of culture,” she explained.
Seeking to create space and encouragement where there was none, Bustamante took the initiative to begin Teen Art Salon.
We sat down with Bustamante in Teen Art Salon’s calm, chandelier-lit fairyland of a studio to talk beginnings, next steps, and the ups and downs of running the show.
I started during the last year that I was working. I would meet with teenagers I knew through friends of family, or the original two kids I babysat, Senna Lauer and Jensen Foerster. And then I made the decision to leave my job in January. I met with a lot of museum educators [and] K-12 people. And I said, okay, I’m fortunate enough to have a space at a very low price through my parents. I’m just going to open it up and see who comes.
I always knew that I wanted to do a show for the official opening. I didn’t actually find a space I wanted until the end of August, actually, through Eric Ho, founder of miLES in the Lower East Side. His whole concept is about supporting young entrepreneurs and creative people.
And as far as the artists, it was kids that I had worked with, like Senna and Jensen, for a while. And I did scouting across North America to find what I thought were strong talent in specific fields. I reached out to a lot of people through social media. So it was a combination of people I knew really well and some that I still have never met.
What were some highlights from the show?
Collectively it was so great. I loved Senna’s piece in the basement, a film that she did with poetry. It was her own installation; she put dresses on the wall, and lights. She saw the space in one day and she came and was like, I know I want this, this, and this. And all I did was provide the resources to print the poem and provide the projector, and she set that up.
Seeing Stella [Mulroney]’s work was really appropriate for the time. I liked that she was this girl from LA that almost exclusively takes pictures of young men, and is really interested in that transition. That was kind of surprising, to see that kind of risk-taking work at that age. And then Celeste Cares from Toronto. Her paintings: A-plus.[And] Jensen, who took photographs on his iPhone of sleepovers. They looked amazing when they were printed. And I really like to support the work that’s been done with a marker and paper, or just a phone, as well as people who have more resources and higher-level equipment.
What has been your experience working with these young people? Have they changed your expectations of this age group?
I think it’s only enforced what I already believed. The kids that really aspire to be in the design industries or the art world were answering my emails in two seconds, were extremely dedicated. But then I also had kids who would just come and like, read and talk, and really liked just having a community and a space to go. So it was nice that it wasn’t competitive and that everyone kind of knew what they wanted out of it.
And also to see personality changes. Kids that came in first very shy, within an hour would be like, sprawled laying out on the floor writing poetry and chatting to me about their commute time. And I was like, okay, this space can do this. That was one thing I was really happy to see.
What sort of reception have you gotten from parents?
Mostly it’s been very supportive. I’ll just speak about Judith Brisman—I used to watch her twins, and one of them is very academically strong. The other one, Senna, who I’m working with, is super creative. And [their mother] would always think schoolwork should come first. She said Teen Art Salon has made [her] change [her] perception, that when Senna sits down to write and to paint and to read, that’s just as important as studying for a math test.
What are some challenges you’ve run into so far in making this happen? Especially as smaller art spaces have had a harder time thriving here.
Well, first off, just being a 25-year-old girl. I was thinking, okay, it’s just me trying to do this. It was a lot of my own mental fears of taking risks. And then I just said to myself, no, that’s not who I am. And I reached out to everyone. But that was the biggest hurdle, I think, was letting myself be really, really vulnerable and always doing this self-promoting.
I mean, doing things on a budget is definitely difficult. Installing a show just with the help of friends and family is hard.
Does Teen Art Salon have nonprofit status or anything of the sort?
I’m a sole proprietor, but I have 501(c)(3) tax-deductible status through Fractured Atlas. And then I’m doing crowdfunding, which I started last week.
Fundraising is the hardest thing ever, because they tell you that your first donors are your family and people that you’ve developed really close relationships to. And asking those people, even in a really general email, is so [groans]. I’m like, asking them for more. It seems like a lot. That’s been hard.
But marketing [the Indiegogo], especially. We have a good amount of following on Instagram, but those are all young kids.
What sort of stuff do you have in the works for TAS?
Besides having open studios, I’m looking to do more seminars on social justice, contemporary youth culture, and also give more of a global spin to art history. Because I was an art history major, and I found, of course, no public schools are teaching art history, so I felt it was important for them to have that knowledge.
And I feel like we see it through such a Western lens, and it’s so [groans]. So, the first seminar I did here to kind of open the space was on photo diaries and the origin of why photojournalism has become this respected career, while diaries are seen as this very female, emasculated type of writing.
So I’d like to do more seminars, and also get some guest speakers to come in. I’ll start asking the kids who’s local in New York that they’re a big fan of. It’s nice to give them what they’re interested in.
Oh, and more exhibitions. I have possible spaces in LA, Toronto, and London, maybe. As of now they’re unfunded, though.
Have you gotten any attention from people in the “art world” about your project?
It’s kind of hard sometimes to tell who is from the art world and who isn’t. But I did have a guy say that this is better than what they’re showing in Chelsea, [that he’s] lived on this block for a while and this is one of the coolest things they’ve had up. So I think that people are really interested in what my group is doing. My friends who are working at galleries and museums have been super supportive. As far as bigger institutions, it’s kind of a we’ll see.
If young people are reading this and they want to get involved, what’s the best way they could go about doing that?
The best way is to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Say hi, and if there is a specific project that you’ve never had the space to make, please let me know what kind of materials you might need and what you’re thinking. We’ll work on it together. You can come by on October 3, from 2-6pm.
Aside from film and visual art, are you interested in working with other artistic disciplines?
There have been musicians, young and even a little older, who have approached me about wanting to get involved. Performance art, we would really like to do. We didn’t have the time for it, but I did have kids speaking to me about ideas. Socially-engaged art and interactive art also. I’m definitely interested.
It’s called Teen Art Salon, but for me art is the application of imagination. And anyone that imagines is welcome.
Teen Art Salon is located at 27-28 Thomson Avenue in Long Island City, in a studio space shared with Yoga Studio 6 LIC. Their open studios begin on Saturday, October 3.
Find their crowdfunding page here.