Dedicated docents donate time, talent to enlighten museum visitors

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You've seen them in action and benefited from their passion -- the docents who regale us with stories that bring museum collections to life.

But what many don't realize is the amount of work docents devote to their training -- and they perform the job for free.

A prospective docent for Carnegie Museum of Art, for example, first takes a 14-week, academic-level class in the history of art and then is able to apply for provisional docent status. Further training and tour observations follow, leading to the final step -- a practice tour before museum staff. Once appointed, docents commit to a weekly training session and to leading at least one tour each week.

Why would anyone make such a commitment?

"It's a joy, that's why I stay here," said Merle Culley, a Bradford Woods resident who has been a Carnegie docent for 29 years.

She told about introducing a school group to Albert Bierstadt's 1887 painting "Farallon Island," a surging rocky seascape populated by marine animals.

"It's a noisy painting," she said. "You know that, but can't hear it."

She instructed the students to, at the count of three, make the sound of something depicted in the painting and a cacophony of barking seals, screeching gulls, howling wind and waves hitting rocks ensued.

"It's experiential," she said.

"There's a reward when you have a response from the public," said Becky Utech Gaugler, assistant curator of education, programs for student and adult groups, at the museum. She trains and develops curriculum for the museum's 40 docents. All but two of the docents are women. Their backgrounds vary and include teaching, nursing and business. Familiarity with the visual arts is helpful -- but not a prerequisite.

Of the 80 who completed the recent art history survey class, which was open to the public, 15 applied to become docents. Ms. Gaugler, who has been in her position for more than three years, looks for individuals who have the capacity "to be flexible and be responsive to people," she said.

"It's more about facilitating a conversation than lecturing. Helping people to have a great experience is the more important part," said Ms. Gaugler, 32, of Lawrenceville.

"The take-away a visitor should have is 'the art museum's really awesome.' "

Part of the job is building a comfort zone for visitors who may be experiencing art for the first time.

One of the things that docents may teach students or adults, for example, is that "it's OK to question or to not understand a work of art," Ms. Gaugler said. "We're giving them permission."

Through questions that prompt individual responses to a work of art, Ms. Culley illustrates the variety that legitimate interpretations may encompass.

"Somebody else has a different point of view. And it's not a right or wrong point of view. It's a point of view," she said.

"You don't have to like this piece," Ms. Culley might tell a group. "But you should think about why you do and why you don't."

An interactive approach that is being explored invites older students to more fully engage a painting through methods such as writing an email to a friend describing how they place themselves within the work.

"It forces them to look at and document what they see and then share with each other. We learn by sharing. It's visual literacy. It's the Socratic method. It's using critical thinking skills," Ms. Culley said.

"It's a ton of work and it takes a special set of skills," Ms. Gaugler said of being a docent. Sometimes an applicant doesn't quite match the required personality and has to be turned away, a task Ms. Gaugler doesn't like to do.

"We want to be inclusive. It's difficult to [say no to] someone who loves the place and wants to donate his time," she said.

The museum, however, usually has other volunteer opportunities that are a better fit.

Last year, docents led tours for about 18,500 individuals, Ms. Gaugler said, which is representative of a typical yearly average. About half of that number consists of K-12 students. The total includes group tours for schools, universities, adults and museum members as well as tours tailored to groups who have special needs.

A daily tour is offered, free with museum admission, and may highlight a work in the collection or a special exhibition. School groups are a source of revenue, with the proceeds used to fund educational programming.

Some tours are straightforwardly informative, but children invite nurturing, Ms. Culley said. "This is where they learn about what's important about art."

Ms. Culley said she enjoys the camaraderie with other docents and events, such as trips together, as well as the constant learning and the challenging new ideas.

"It's the best nonpaying job there is," she said.

But it's evident that the children are at the top of her perks list.

"There are other things that replace the monetary, such as seeing a lit-up face, the 'aha' experience," she said. "I love working with kids."

She smiled and shared an example.

As Ms. Culley and a group of young students stood before Monet's almost monochromatic "The Sea at Le Havre" with its forlorn ship, she said she explained that none of the artist's contemporaries liked the painting, and one said that Monet's paint strokes looked like cat licks. A short time later, the students were looking at Monet's "Water Lilies," painted almost a half-century later by the artist.

"Well, we've gone from cat licks to cowlicks" one of the young observers said.

The docents usually get summers off from their weekly training, Ms. Gaugler said, but not this year, with the Carnegie International arriving in the fall.

"The docents have a vast wealth of knowledge about the collection," she said, but a lot of new work and artists will be arriving. They began meeting with curators and academics early in the year, and a binder of artist resumes has been assembled for reference.

They'll learn collectively, and then each will develop a presentation reflecting the individual's interests and that of specific groups the docent guides through the cutting-edge exhibition.

"We never script them," Ms. Gaugler said. "They're all too smart to be scripted."

A lot of museums are eliminating their docent programs, Ms. Gaugler said, replacing them with technology or with paid staff, but she doesn't foresee the Carnegie doing so.

"That human interaction and humans who know so much and are so passionate about it -- you can't replace that."

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Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925. First Published June 27, 2013 4:00 AM


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