Jen Lehe

About Jen Lehe

Jen Lehe is CMA's Manager of Strategic Partnerships, overseeing programs for learners throughout their lives. Jen directed the IMLS-funded Making Creativity Visible initiative and launched the Leaders in Creativity fellowship to build teachers’ capacity to advocate beyond their classrooms. Jen holds an Masters in Arts in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a BFA in Photography from NYU. When she’s not at CMA, she’s gardening with her pit bull, Chompsky.

Center for Art and Social Engagement Debuts

Center for Art and Social Engagement


We at CMA love asking “what if.” Imagining is one of our favorite pastimes. A couple of years ago we asked ourselves, what if we took the experimental spirit that fuels our Chase Center for Creativity and applied it to art that speaks to social issues relevant today? What could creative activation and social engagement look like at the museum?

These and similar questions had been churning through our minds for a few years when we got the exciting news that CMA had been awarded funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Museums for America program to launch the Center for Art and Social Engagement

We had long been experimenting to foster visitor conversations about social issues through art, but the IMLS funding would kick us into the next gear.  As you might imagine, the news was thrilling and a little bit scary.  Now came the hard part.

The first step was asking ourselves, what do we mean by ‘social engagement,’ and how do we hope visitors – and the museum – will be different as a result of this initiative?  These early conversations were exciting, but broad; our imaginations were pulling us in a million directions. So almost on a whim, someone suggested we pull out CMA’s primary book of social commentary art, In the Eye of the Storm: An Art of Conscience, and open it to a random page. We opened to George Tooker’s Lunch and began, as museum educators always do, to notice. We surfaced dozens of ideas that could point us toward a theme. The one that rose to the surface was isolation. The work is packed with figures, apparently seated in rungs, slouched forward and looking down. Although they are crowded together, each seems alone. Some appear to be holding sandwiches, one a cup of coffee. Visitors sometimes remark that the posture and feeling of disconnection reminds them of people on their cellphones. 

I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to limit how you explore the work on your own. Suffice it to say that for us the work evoked personal isolation, as well as, social exclusion. Our noticing surfaced the loneliness of being near others but feeling alienated from them, and it raised the sociopolitical question of who “gets a seat at the table.” 

Both isolation and alienation impact us all of us, in different ways, that are personal, social and political. 

We are living in times characterized by superficial connections and profound loneliness; a recent study found that 1 in 5 Americans “always” or “often” feel socially isolated. Moreover, while the rights movements of the past decades have achieved undeniable gains, persistent power imbalance means that massive inequities remain a societal toxin. 

When you visit the Center for Art and Social Engagement, we hope you will have the courage to consider your own experiences of loneliness, isolation, exclusion, and to imagine the lives of others. We have mined the collection to find works that speak to different aspects of isolation and exclusion; we encourage you to slow down with them. We will also be launching a special tour and hosting creative encounters with artists around this theme – so stay tuned for program announcements.

We also hope you will build connections with other people through experiences in the Center. We have included games – some familiar, some created especially for CASE. These will help you connect with someone you visit the museum with or perhaps a stranger you meet in the gallery. Some will also help you think differently about some of the structures that push people to the margins and limit their wellbeing. 

Lastly, we hope visiting CASE will inspire you to take action, for yourself and for others. We have crowdsourced some tips for fighting isolation, and included local resources for mental health and other kinds of support, as well as, organizations that combat social exclusion and that need your help.

Loneliness and exclusion thrive when we are afraid to name them. We hope this inaugural installation of the Center for Art and Social Engagement will help us break those taboos, build new connections, and engage in new, creative, relevant ways. 

The Center for Art and Social Engagement is funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 






-Jen Lehe, CMA Manager for Strategic Partnerships. 

Q&A with Aniya CMA’s Newest Teen Mentor

Teen Mentor

Aniya Anderson-Wilson is one of the newest teen mentors at Columbus Museum of Art, and is also an alum of the Surge teen program, a citywide free drop-in program designed for teens to experiment with technology, and hang out with other young creatives. Aniya is an artist and illustrator, and over the course of her years as a teen in Surge,  Aniya became a natural leader.  So, when she graduated from high school last May, she was offered a position as a mentor at CMA’s Teen Open Studio, one of six programs that are part of the Surge network across Columbus. 

We sat down with her recently to talk about her role as a Surge-teen-turned-mentor, her studio practice, and what is special about Surge.

What exactly do you spend your time doing when you work in the studio?

Usually when I come in I try to stay focused. I’ll come with a set goal in mind, like I want to start designing a particular character. It’s not anything serious, just a task I set for myself, but I would come here to do it and socialize with my friends, get their input, and wind up with a collection of ideas. 

Has anything surprised you about the experience during your time here?

Surprised me? What has surprised me in particular had to be the diversity of students that come in and the amount of things that I got learn when I was coming. So between the mentors that were here when I started coming as a teen, to the artists that they brought in, to just the collective knowledge of the other students was a big thing I was surprised about. It wasn’t just a teacher telling you things, it was more about “we’re here and sharing these ideas.”

In what ways do you think Open Studio has benefitted the individuals who attend?

Teen Open Studio is such a big difference when compared to school and I think that’s the main part that has kids coming back regularly. The fact that we get to share and work off one another really does help. For instance there will be instances where a friend of mine doesn’t know how to work a program, so I get to teach them. But then they point out something that I didn’t recognize because I don’t think like that person. Teaching someone how to do something, in itself, is almost a better way to learn that thing. 

For the individuals who attend regularly, or have visited multiple times, have you seen progression in their work?

Just from an example standpoint, I’ve seen a lot of progression from the teens who work in the sound booth. I’ve seen in their interactions between themselves and Andre (another mentor and music producer) communicate better. They can discuss certain things and go from “I have an idea” to execution.  Seeing not only the stages of their work but how it progresses step-by-step is really interesting. What starts as an idea slowly becomes this final product and that’s really cool.

What is the most memorable piece of art that you’ve seen someone make during Teen Open Studio?

That’s a tough one. The first thing that comes to mind is recently one of my friends did a piece digitally for the first time, because I decided to hassle him over and over again. This was before I was a mentor so I wasn’t hassling a student I promise (laughs), but he was a friend of mine who was strictly traditional. He tried digital for the first time after I managed to get him to do it and he created this cool piece. I loved it so much, it told an interesting story, and it was just fantastic to see. 

What would you tell a teen who hasn’t been to the Studio to convince them to give it a shot?

I think teens would want to come for above all else the community that’s built when you come here. Realistically, Fridays are the quieter of the two days for those who might be apprehensive. But even when there aren’t a ton of people here there is still life in the Studio. You get to play with new materials and you don’t have to pay for any of it. And who doesn’t enjoy being creative in a space where everything is free? 

Come meet Aniya, hang out with other young creatives, and make your mark at Surge Columbus! For more details about the Surge program visit www. 

SURGE is a collaboration between CMA, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, TRANSIT ARTS and WOSU Public Media, and COSI and is made possible by a grant from Battelle.

Art Lab: Helping Teens Come Into Their Own

Art Lab for Teens

If you visited the Columbus Museum of Art on a certain Sunday last December or April, you might have stumbled upon a gigantic, quilted heart into which you were invited to pose a question to your soul. Or you may have been ushered into a translucent dome representing the social “bubbles” we live in. Or you might have found yourself in a dark, curtained booth, listening to the life stories of young strangers. You may even have unburdened yourself to a “therapist” who then dispensed her prescribed “medication,” capsules filled with substances like glitter (to bring more excitement to your life) or dirt (to help you find a sense of grounding).

These are just some of the many participatory art works created by teens in Art Lab. Art Lab is a yearlong, in-depth experience in which a small group of high school students spend a full day each week with the Museum. Teens apply to participate, and selections are made to include a diverse range of past experience, with special consideration to youth with limited access to other arts opportunities and those who have not been successful in traditional school models.

Throughout the program, youth explore the creative vibrancy of the city, work with Columbus-based artists, learn about careers in museums, and craft visitor experiences such as those described above. What results is a jaw-dropping array of art and ideas, exploring profound themes in dynamic ways. Perhaps most impressive is the way the teen artists, often shy at the start of the program, actively engage visitors in thoughtful dialogue around fundamental questions of art and life.

Art Lab in the CMA sculpture garden

The CMA team guides and coaches throughout the year, supporting teens to craft their own experience – from idea to implementation – in collaboration with one another. Teens thrive in this culture of collaborative and authentic learning, and the growth of these young people is incredible. One parent remarked that without Art Lab, she didn’t know where her son would be.

In 2015, researchers Danielle Linzer and Mary Ellen Munley published a groundbreaking research initiative Room to Rise, which investigated the long-term impacts of museum-based teen arts programs such as Art Lab. This study found that participation in programs like Art Lab leads to powerful and prolonged impacts on teens, including

  • Increased social capital, personal development, participation in the arts, and artistic and cultural literacy;
  • Close and trusting relationships with peers and museum staff;
  • Growth in a sense of identity, confidence, achievement, and empowerment;
  • Expanded career horizons;
  • Increased value placed on community, collaboration, and diversity.

The hundreds of visitors who interacted with Art Lab artists have seen the seeds of this growth. The young creatives of Art Lab challenge themselves and their peers; create art that displays courage and vulnerability; stretch themselves intellectually, creatively, and socially; and help to reimagine what a museum can be. Indeed, you the audience play an important role in this growth; one teen reflected that a visitor “came up to me and was really interested. It made me think she believed in me more than I believe in myself, and it really touched me.”

-Jennifer Lehe, Columbus Museum of Art Manager of Strategic Partnerships

Championing Creativity All the Time

Task Party

Teachers practicing their own creativity at the final workshop of the Teaching for Creativity Institute.

Recently I had an experience that left my head swimming. It was the last session of the Teaching for Creativity Institute , and we were closing out the year with a day of teacher-led workshops. The participants in the Institute and the Leaders for Creativity fellows who designed the day are extraordinary. I have worked with them in different ways all year long, and seen them re-imagine, experiment, and reflect in truly impressive ways. It isn’t surprising, then, that I walked away from this bonanza of puzzles and inspirations with many ideas bouncing around in my mind, ricocheting off one another to head off in new directions.

One such sticky idea came from Jason Blair, a teacher and frequent thought partner. He highlighted creativity as a mindset with us all the time – not a behavior confined to particular moments and packed away when it is time to move on to more serious pursuits. Learning can be designed to explicitly build and stretch creativity; however, if we really value creativity we must celebrate it all the time.

This sounds simple at first. Who wouldn’t want to support creativity all the time? In practice, though, we often welcome creativity only when it is on our terms.

Jason contrasted the reaction to student creativity on an assigned project – This is exactly what I hoped for! – to the reaction when a child demonstrates creativity when it hasn’t been asked for, like dancing down the hall rather than walking – That is NOT the way we behave in the hallway! Show some maturity! We adults, after all, know better. There is time for imagination and play, but it had better respect the schedule.

You may be thinking that rules are in place for safety; just one false dance move can land a kid in the nurse’s office. That is a fair point, and at the Museum we take the safety of visitors and art very seriously. But reflecting on every moment as a space for creativity, how might we maintain safety while fostering imagination, another priority during a museum visit? Cat Lynch, who leads young child programming, has some delightful approaches to this. For example, she might have children imagine sneaking through the jungle of a landscape (“remember to quietly push aside the vines and grasses!”), or imagine they are creatures, characters, or crew-mates of a vehicle in a work of art they have just explored together, (“we’ll need to steer together”). 

Cat also has a rule in her summer programs that any play fighting must be done in slow-motion. Kids of all ages love to play-fight, but this presents a threat to safety. Instead of engaging in an unwinnable fight against fighting, Cat identified the actual reason fighting is a bad idea, and found a creative compromise. The result is as absurd as you are probably imagining – but no one gets hurt, and there is the bonus benefit that kids have an understanding of why they shouldn’t play fight (i.e. even if it is a game to you, quick and violent motions could hurt someone.) This is just one educator’s response to the specific example of walking down the hall, but it illustrates that we can identify what matters about a rule and find ways to get what we need without inhibiting creativity.

When we stifle creativity that emerges organically at a time that is “inconvenient” for us, we make spaces unsafe for originality. When we value conformity and obedience in children, we crush the impulses needed for creativity, the basis of change and innovation. Later, as these young people enter the workforce, we wonder what happened to their creativity problem solving skills. Perhaps we left them in that hallway.

Innovators don’t spend their PreK-12 years assiduously following rules, then, upon receiving their exit ticket from high school immediately have the capacity to see the world in new ways. They were often the misfits all along. What we label rule-breaking in children, we often celebrate as visionary with adults. This, however, calls for a moment of honesty: We may value rebelliousness in the heroic stories of innovators, but how often do we really value and cultivate radically original ideas in our own workplaces?  If you want a deep-dive into this, I recommend Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about fostering better ideas in their organization. CMA just wrapped a Leadership Series group-read of Originals in partnership with the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation. The book upends a lot of assumptions and workplace practices, and left me with many puzzles and knots to tease out when I reflect on my own management practice.

As managers and colleagues are we welcoming and rewarding creativity, even when it’s not “on our terms?” Or do we shoo it off in order to “get down to business?” In thinking about “safety” (physical or otherwise), do we set and communicate intentional parameters so that our teams can be free to imagine? Anyone who wants original ideas must be willing to look long, hard, and often at what they should start doing, stop doing, and do differently in order for creativity to thrive on its own terms.

You can follow Jason Blair on Twitter @epesArt for more of his insights into creativity in learning

Find out more about the next Creativity Institute. Final deadline to apply is May 5, 2017. 

The Teaching for Creativity Institute and the Leaders for Creativity Fellowship are supported by the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation.

-Jennifer Lehe, Columbus Museum of Art Manager of Strategic Partnerships