Taking a docent led tour is a great way to learn new things about the art you'll see in a museum and a great chance to talk to other people who like looking at art. The next time you head to your local art museum look into it!
Hi, thanks for talking with me about this. When did you become a docent?
In 1998, so I've been a docent for about 14 years.
What does a docent do?
Well, they are involved in the museum education department and they conduct interactive tours for guests of the museum.
Why did you decide to become a docent?
I wanted to find volunteer work to do and was aware of volunteer work in hospitals but didn’t want to do that. I found a section in the Baltimore Sun about volunteer opportunities that I'd periodically check, and when this came up I thought it sounded interesting, because I like going to art galleries and I like public contact, and I wanted to learn more about art.
Do you have a background in art or art history?
No, I don’t, which was one reason I wanted to do it. I’ve always felt that I was deficient in art and art history and that was one reason I wanted to do it, to learn more about art.
Had you ever taken a tour from a docent before?
Yes, but not in an art gallery. But yes at various historical museums, Williamsburg, that kind of thing.
And what was your training like?
We met one Wednesday a week from September to June for two hours. We got some training on the mechanics of giving a tour, and a lot of training on the collection itself. Basically the training the BMA gives and the tours they like are interactive, to get people to engage with you in talking about the art, rather than the docent just lecturing.
How often do you give tours?
A couple times a month.
Can you describe a typical tour?
They can vary but the general tour we give is called “The Treasures of the BMA.” I go to five pieces for a 45 minute to one hour tour. I try to cover some of the content of the painting, what it’s about, where it fits historically, a little bit about the artist. Then we talk about the technique of the painting, how it’s composed, what type of brushwork the artist used, how representative it is, and then I try to get people’s reactions to the work.
Do you have any tips or tricks about getting people to talk about the work?
I always explain I want it to be a discussion and that there are no wrong answers. That anyone’s reaction to the painting is valid and they don’t have to “know” what to say. If you ask, “what do you think is going on here,” whatever they see is what they see, it’s valid. I usually start with Van Dyck’s Rinaldo and Armida, which is an illustration of an epic poem having to do with the liberation of Jerusalem (during the Crusades). I will explain that it illustrates a story, then we will look at the painting and I ask people to tell me who they think the people are and what they might have done. It’s interesting how close people come to the story once they really look at the painting. Then I talk about how the artist composed the painting, how there is a diagonal that attracts your eye to the people, how Van Dyck used light to direct the eye to the people. I always try to pick something when I go painting to painting that I can compare one to the other. Light, color, how thick paint is on the canvas, how those change or stay the same, how artists do it differently from one painting to another.
Have you given any tours to children?
Yes, and they are different. The first thing I do if I have small children is have them sit down rather than stand, and I don’t cover nearly as much or get as technical and I try to involve the children somehow. There are a lot of ways to do that. If I have children old enough to make a list and we are looking at a landscape for instance, I’ll have them make a list of the colors in the sky since kids think of sky as blue but usually many colors make up the sky in a painting.
Or I’ll ask, “Where do you see red in this painting, and why did the painter use it there?” There are also “gallery games.” One is where we look at a portrait of a woman that includes velvet and satin and lace, and I will have little swatches of those fabrics and have the children feel them behind their back and tell me if the fabric is in the woman’s dress or cape etc…. I had a colleague who would look at a Matisse that included a table with angles that didn’t match and she’d tell the children to take out their finger and pretend it was their “magic paintbrush” and trace around the table and notice that the perspective was different.
If I have older children and we are in a gallery that has three or four different artists with distinct techniques, it’s fun to have postcards of different paintings those artists have done and have the children try to match the postcards to their artist by comparing the techniques.
So what would be your main suggestions when a person takes their small child to an art museum?
Try to prepare your child and try to prepare yourself. Your children need to know what to expect they will see.
But I’m wondering if are there any shorthand tips to help engage kids in a painting without even any preparation?
I think they almost react to contemporary art better than they do to “old masters.” They seem to give more of a response to something that might even bamboozle adults. They will come up with amazing answers. It’s a good idea to give a child some paper and a pen and let them draw in the gallery.
We have a work, a Susan Rothenberg called "Siena Dos Equis," which is an example of the artist using her imagination to express her idea of a horse. We will show the children a piece of paper with an outline of the horse and ask them questions like, “how many legs does the horse have,” and then give them the outline and ask them to finish it if it looks like it needs to be finished, if it looks to them like something is missing.
We have another work called “Entry to the Ark,” by Jacopo Bassano about events related to Noah’s Ark. First we have the children look at the painting and tell us what they see. Then we tell them the story of Noah and give them each a plastic animal. We then have the children tell us about their animal; where the animal lives, what it eats, what sounds they make, and then we have the child find the animal in the painting. This really gets the children to look at the painting.
Do you have favorite works at the museum you like to talk about?
I really kind of like to do the contemporary art; some of the Jasper Johns or a Motherwell because I’ll get more open ended responses. People will say more if you just ask, “what do you think of this?” They feel more constrained when they are looking at old masters or more representational paintings.
|An example of Ellsworth Kelly
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because the contemporary art is more open to viewer response. If you have an Ellsworth Kelly and it’s just a matte grey curved piece, people feel open to say what they think about it.
Do people usually respond positively to that work?
Often I’ll start out and their response is a little derogatory, in that they think it’s simple and pointless, but then when we get to talking about it and I may not convince them of anything, but they do see more into it.
Do you have a favorite piece of art in the museum?
Not really, we just have things that are so different one from the other.
How do you talk to kids about pieces that may have difficult subject matter?
Well it depends on the age. Often times I’ll point out, and a docent wouldn’t be doing this with small children, if something comes up that a lot of the point of art is to encourage dialogue, particularly when it’s art about difficult subjects. It’s not telling you that this is right or this is wrong, but it’s to encourage dialogue.
Has being a docent been a positive experience?
Yes! I enjoy it thoroughly.