In an art museum, you recognize a decent by her “gray hair, flat shoes, and funky jewelry” stated the chairman of a recent National Docent Symposium. Although not all fit that mold (some are even men) we do have similarities — not the least of which is dedication.
A docent’s dedication is usually to one museum. After many years, that can lead to burn-out. In my case, however, I never had the chance for burn-out. Over a sixteen year period, I served as a docent at the PAM (Phoenix Art Museum), DAM (Denver), SAM (Seattle), Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and the Hearst Gallery/Museum at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. An award for museum volunteer longevity certainly wasn’t in my future.
A company relocation from Denver to Phoenix started it all. The move left me in unfamiliar surroundings with time on my hands. With our boys in school and my husband at work, my search for a new challenge began. Little did I realize the “can of worms” I opened for myself by volunteering at the Phoenix Art Museum.
As a former teacher/volunteer in Colorado schools, the docent training program seemed right for me. I jumped in with both feet, in spite of learning about PAM’s intense training criteria, which demanded a strong sense of dedication. Requirements included attending weekly classes, reading art history books, taking written tests, and applying learned touring techniques in “sample tours.” On top of this schedule, a program of continuous education, meetings, and minimum volunteer hours awaited after graduation. Nonetheless, I was ready.
Following the eighteen month training, I graduated full of enthusiasm. My “highs” emanated from exposing people of all ages to art via museum tours and outreach presentations. I taught “looking” and “seeing” through participation.
Barely in the swing of touring, the company transferred us to Salt Lake City just four months later. Head high, shoulders back, and chest puffed with confidence, I gathered my art books and training materials and proceeded to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
“You must fulfill our requirements for being a docent,” said the Education Curator, ”and pay for the training.”
“Pay to volunteer!” said my husband. “Now I’ve heard it all.” (I was to learn in years to come that many museums charge for in-house classes or require college art history courses.)
Though my ego was a bit deflated, UMFA’s requirements, which were very similar to those I’d already completed at PAM, served to further sharpen my skills and increase my knowledge. While re-training, I presented outreach programs in elementary classrooms. My participatory tours and presentations led to teaching a docent workshop.
Then, after only two years, a third transfer occurred — a joyous return to Denver, but, a new museum for me, the DAM. I complete a required one year self-study program in three months. Four years as a DAM docent concluded with a fourth transfer. This time, we moved to Seattle.
Again, letters of reference, a resume, and all my training materials in hand, I met with the Education Director of SAM.
“You’ll have to complete a special program and sit in on the remainder of docent training classes already in progress …”
What could I say? I trained again. Three years of new touring and outreach experiences, teaching workshops, appearing on a panel at the National Docent Symposium, and making more docent friends ended with a transfer to the San Francisco Bay area.
Commuting distance to museums, anticipating a fifth training program, and the knowledge that we wouldn’t stay long made my decision to forgo being a docent easy. As luck would have it, I discovered a Russian Icon exhibition, familiar ground after giving tours in Seattle for the “Moscow Treasures and Traditions” show. The gallery/museum located on the campus of St. Mary’s College was also on my side, geographically, of the Bay. I made a beeline to the campus.
Imagine my elation when I heard, “Though we don’t have a docent training program, we’d be happy to let you give tours.”
Four years later, our planned return to Colorado consummated in the smaller town of Ft. Collins. Facing time constraints, miles, and the possibility of inclement weather, I turned down the chance to reinstate my docent status at DAM. Instead, I’m writing for magazines, sometimes about art, and visiting classrooms here and there with hands-on art and slides. The challenges, people, and teaching opportunities I encountered over the past sixteen years were well worth the additional training I was required to take. Burn-out was never an issue because of constant change. If you remain at one location, you, too, can dampen burn-out with change.
Expose yourself to new challenges. Train outside your comfort area. Give new tours, work with special exhibitions, conduct outreach programs.
Channel your talents in new directions. Teach workshops for your fellow docents, or classroom teachers, or parents. Mentor a less experienced docent. Change your art focus. Learn more about your weakest area, perhaps try concentrating on art from people or places you are unfamiliar with.
If given the chance, would I start again? Yes! Would I fit the docent mold? Again, yes. My hair is gray. I wear flat shoes and, sometimes, even funky jewelry. But, most of all, I remain dedicated to art education.
Linda Osmundson served as a docent in the Phoenix Art Museum, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Denver Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, and the Hearst Gallery of St Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. Ms. Osmundson taught workshops for museum docents and school art docent programs. She served on a panel, “Getting Your Audience Into the Act, “at the 1991 National Docent Symposium. Recently, she transferred her interests in art appreciation to freelance writing for adult and children’s publications. Ms. Osmundson now lives with her husband in Ft. Collins, CO.
Osmundson, Linda. “Facing Change,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 18-19.