A San Francisco Bay Area museum is taking an unusual tack with an exhibition about foster youth in California. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History invited a team of former foster youth and advocates to help put the show together.
Five months before the show Lost Childhoods went up, around a hundred former foster youth and advocates began meeting at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to talk about what the exhibition would look like.
Community engagement director Stacey Garcia explains, “We are not experts in what foster youth have gone through, what they want to share. We know how to make an exhibition, but we don’t know how to tell their story. They do.”
Jess Prudent works as an outreach assistant with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Santa Cruz County, which supports children in foster care.
Prudent was skeptical at first that the museum wanted anything more than superficial advice from the Creative Community Committee (C3), but was soon won over by the hands-on curatorial process.
“We were making every decision: like, the layout of this place, the art pieces that we included, the artists, even what the collaborating artists were going to focus on,” Prudent says.
At the core of the exhibition is a collection of photographic portraits by Ray Bussolari, as well as artifacts from Oakland’s Foster Youth Museum.
Garcia says the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History added works by former foster youth who are on the museum’s advisory committee, as well as by local artists they got to choose. “We really chose artists based on how willing they were to collaborate, and how much they wanted the youths’ voices to shine versus their own,” Garcia says.
Take “Interwoven Voices,” by Santa Cruz artist Melody Overstreet. It’s is a tapestry of messages from committee members, written on paper strips. This is one written by Prudent: “We’re not troubled kids. We’re kids with troubles.”
Jamie Lee Evans is the founder of the Foster Youth Museum. “There is no other exhibit like this,” Evans says. “This is the largest and probably only exhibition of artifacts, art and culture demonstrating the experience of foster care from a youth’s perspective.”
That’s something Lost Childhoods makes plain with personal mementos that highlight statistical truths. A college diploma and a photograph of a foster youth living in a dorm room at University of San Francisco is accompanied by a caption explaining that close to half of those who survive foster care will never graduate from high school, let alone university. A disproportionate number will instead become unemployed or even homeless when they “age out.”
“I’ve been told from plenty of people that I know that coming here, they relate to things that they couldn’t before, whether or not they were in the foster care system,” says Chad Platt, a transition age youth advocate at Encompass Community Services and a former foster youth himself.
Museum visitor Diane Lamott from Aptos was moved by the show. “Heart wrenching. Emotional,” she said choking back tears. “Makes you wish you could have done something more to help.”
But the show’s organizers want to do more than elicit sympathy from visitors.
Right at the entrance of the gallery, there’s a massive display of multi-colored “action cards.”
Each one suggests one way to help foster youth. Bake a cake. Donate a pair of pajamas. Teach a teen to write a resume. Or, if you’re really inspired, volunteer as a court appointed special advocate.