- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

Volunteer guides at the Corcoran Gallery of Art sometimes refer to their work as “docenting.” The word, an active form of speech, is apt since their job goes way beyond that of simply guiding people around a building.

To many visitors, the guides — called docents — are the museum’s face. A docent’s knowledge of the museum’s collection and special exhibits is likely to be the one that stays in a visitor’s mind. And since a docent’s ability to communicate is paramount, training sessions include methods of reading people as well as understanding art.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the Corcoran’s 150 volunteers include lawyers and dentists as well as artists and former art history teachers. The education staff, headed by associate curator Leslie Shaffer, speaks of incoming docents as “a class,” divided into two “sets,” for weekday and weekend work.

Traditionally, the institution relied almost exclusively on the Washington Junior League, whose members are community-oriented young professional women. This year’s recruits from the public at large number 30, a higher figure than usual and high for any art museum locally. The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, for example, has not needed any new docents in the past few years, primarily because it has had few retirees among its current group of 100, some of whom have been there for more than 30 years. Three weekday Corcoran docents also work at the Hirshhorn.

What keeps such people committed and how they manage to stay “fresh” is best answered by a look at the Corcoran’s training program, which is one of the oldest and most comprehensive of its kind.

Paul Greenhalgh, the museum’s new director, calls them “the very soul” of the institution and made sure to meet with both sets within a few weeks of his arrival.

To judge by a recent “acquaintance” tour of the Hirshhorn given by several dozen Corcoran docents and led by two of the “double dippers,” a key ingredient of success is enthusiasm backed by a broad range of knowledge — and at least one pair of comfortable shoes.

The May 9 afternoon event was part of the Corcoran docents’ weekly continuing education sessions, which feature a different theme or lecturing authority each time. (Weekend docents meet monthly.) The subject might be art itself or what Miss Shaffer calls “new ways to interpret art.” There are, in addition, self-study requirements that involve written papers. This follows the two weeks of intensive training given volunteers when they first join the program (The next class begins training Aug. 21.)

They work late June to mid-September — following a normal school year — and are expected to commit for two years. A weekday docent conducts one tour weekly; a weekender, one each month.

Veterans of the Corcoran’s program describe it as the equivalent in many ways of a master’s degree, although no credit is given beyond what docents may have earned in their careers elsewhere. To fully qualify, an applicant must develop and give a tour to one of the museum staff — usually Miss Shaffer. Docents have their own library and Web site and schedule trips together out of town. They have their own council, and one of them has a seat on the gallery’s board of directors.

In return, they receive upper-level membership, discounts in the museum shop, and an annual luncheon given in their honor each June.

“We teach that [each museum visitor] learns differently so we want to give them different ways of learning, too. And they learn from each other,” says Miss Shaffer, 36, who holds master’s degrees in the history of art and architecture as well as in museum education. She previously worked at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

“The Corcoran doesn’t hand you a script beyond having a theme for the tour. You design your own,” says Andrea Boyarsky-Maisel, an art and English educator by training and experience who joined in 2001. She does a specific kind of tour for very young children that focuses on storytelling and the use of the five senses “to engage them with art.” With older visitors, presenting information in the form of a dialogue is routine.

“Studies have shown people remember what they say and not what they are told,” she notes. “If you are asked to tell what you see, you have to look and answer, and you then remember what you see.”

“Something we teach in docent training is how to figure your audience and do it early in order to do a mid-course adjustment and make the tour more meaningful,” says antitrust lawyer Ed Eliasberg, 58, co-chair of mentorship for the weekend docent council who had no art background when he became a docent 20 years ago.

“I would have paid real money for the training I got,” he adds.

The idea behind the May 9 Hirshhorn tour was to better equip Corcoran weekday regulars for discussions on contemporary art and sculpture, a primary focus of the Hirshhorn’s collection. The Corcoran Gallery, by contrast, offers the public a wide range of art across several centuries and genres, such as a current exhibit called “Botanical Treasures of Lewis & Clark,” about the famous explorers’ plant discoveries.

Vivan Brodsky, a former social worker who has spent three years as a Hirshhorn docent on top of 12 at the Corcoran, and Ms.Boyarsky-Maisel divided the group in two and alternated viewings. One was of the regular collection; the other an exhibit of work by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

“We do it because we love it, and we learn a lot,” Ms. Brodsky says of the time she puts in as art educator, adding “I never give the same tour twice. … It’s all interactive.”

She likes the variety of tour groups coming through, including the class of high school art students from the District who had never been to a museum or to the Mall, where the Hirshhorn is located.

“What would the rule symbolize?” Ms. Boyarsky-Maisel inquired of her docent peers, standing with them in front of a complex floor-bound work made of wax, tallow and a carpenter’s rule by Joseph Beuys titled “Memory of My Youth in the Mountains.”

The question might have floored a less sophisticated audience. Answers were immediate, as they were when she guided them to a bright red box with a gray cylinder on top — a minimalist piece by Donald Judd.

“How many of you like it?” she asked, pointing to a large colorful geometric wall sculpture by Frank Stella. And then: “What do you like about it?” The group was getting a lesson in call-and-response as well as a handy way of involving people to think more deeply about symbols and meaning in art forms.

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