Thursday, July 17, 2014


My "lazy days of summer" have been jammed packed with activities: a week at my youngest's national dance competition, hosting my in-laws for a weeklong visit from the Midwest, and docent-ing. Yes, I know that docent-ing isn't technically a word, but I believe it should be.  In my experience, the act of being a docent is a verb.

Let me explain....

STEP 1: When I began my inquiries into being a docent for the Katonah Museum of Art, the head of the Education Department made it clear that being a docent was akin to taking a new art-related college course every few months in preparation for each new exhibition.  Practically, what does that mean?  It means that three to four weeks before an opening, all the docents attend several hours of lectures/presentations to familiarize us with the artwork in the upcoming exhibition, along with all the interesting factoids, personal stories, and tidbits that are all fodder for interesting and accurate tours.  For the current exhibition at the Museum, Iceland: Artists Respond to Place, we also had group lessons on the correct pronunciation of the Icelandic artists' names.

Detail of "Untitled" by Eggert Petursson, included in the current exhibition

STEP 2:  I have to learn this material, inside and out.  There is typically at least one single-spaced page of information on each artist and their artwork.  Some artwork is more familiar: Jasper Johns prints didn't require a huge learning curve because I was already knew bits about his career and recognized his work.  Nothing was familiar about the Icelandic artists.  (I did learn that one of the artists in the KMA exhibition, Olafur Eliasson was also responsible for the 2008 installations called "New York City Waterfalls", a Public Arts Fund project.)   Other than this reference, all the material was new to me.

New York City Waterfalls, Olafur Eliasson; photo credit, New York Times
NOT part of the current KMA exhibition

I have to prepare a tour.  It's one thing to be able to spew facts about artwork.  It's a completely different thing to be able to present the information in conjunction with the artwork, not sound like a robot AND do it all in 40 minutes. This preparation starts with a lot of thinking and then requires walking through the exhibition (nothing beats seeing it in person) and really contemplating the work, anticipating what is unique about each piece, and finding ways to present the work in an interesting and engaging way.  To facilitate this, the Museum always has a seasoned docent give a "first look" tour to the rest of the group.  Attending an advance tour has multiple benefits: anticipating questions, understanding pace -- it's harder to do than you'd think -- and establishing a flow between the artwork.  More thinking follows.

Once I feel ready, I have to give a one-on-one practice tour to the head of the education department.  This is the time I am evaluated so the Museum can determine if I'm ready to be in front of the public on their behalf.  I'm evaluated on a slew of criteria ranging from eye contact to my transitions between artwork and my overall thesis.  This evaluation is necessary to ensure that we are ready to be engaging experts and very public faces of the museum.

I give tours.  I'm pleased to report that I've passed my evaluation and have been approved to guide tours for the Iceland exhibition.  This exhibition is open through the end of September, at which point I'll have already started the process again in preparation for the next exhibition.

So what do you think?  Should docenting should be a word?


Norma Schlager said...

Of course it should be a word! I will try to get to see this exhibit, but would love to do it when you are docent-ing. What days do you work?

Marti said...

docent-ing sounds like an extremely time intensive verb albeit a wonderful opportunity to learn and surround yourself with art. Hooray for you!

Natalya Aikens said...

It's a word to me already! And you're so good at it!