Docent Dialogue: Docent to Docent, A Docent Double Feature!

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

If you happen upon a school tour at FWMoA, odds are you’ll probably see Michael leading a tour. In fact, if you got here from our blog’s home page, you’ve seen him there too! You’ll almost definitely find at least one of today’s featured docents leading any given school tour at the museum. We’ve been lucky to count Susan Elser and Michael Greene among our docent corps for over five years. Read on to learn about some of their most memorable experiences during that time, and what being a docent means to them.

Docent Michael Greene leads a school tour through All Access: Exploring Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry. On school tours, docents discuss techniques like printmaking, breaking down the steps so students can understand how artists work. Photograph by Alyssa Dumire.

Alyssa: How long have you been a docent? How did you find out about it and get involved?

Michael: This is my fifth year. I started the same time as you, Susan. My friend who works at the museum, Director of Facilities Scott Tarr, had actually been pushing me for over a year before I joined, so I finally thought, “Well, I might as well give it a try!” I was retired, not doing much of anything, so I decided to see what would happen. The thing that I was so hesitant about was that I’d never been around kids. I don’t have any or have friends that have many.

Susan: Five years for me also. When I retired, I vowed that I was not going to have the TV on during the day. So, I attempted to find things to do that interested me, and that I thought I could contribute with. I honestly did not have much of a background at the museum at all—I had come occasionally—but I had always been interested in it.

A: Do you have any background or other experience with art?

Susan: My background is theater, which is an art but not the same kind. I’m kind of like Michael, I just thought, “I’ll try it!” I was in television for over twenty years in various areas, and then I worked for county government for seventeen years, in administrative roles.

Michael: I have a BFA from the Fort Wayne Art School, well actually it’s from IU, but I never used it! I worked in material control and inventory control for Lutheran, ITT, and Magnavox, companies like that, for 30-40 years. And then I went to Williams-Sonoma for almost ten years, doing basically the same thing. But I also did about 10-12 years in theater, mostly in set design. I have been on stage a couple of times; I directed one play many years ago! But mostly technical stuff—set design, lighting, that kind of stuff.

I think my parents were a big influence on me. My mother was kind of an artist—she painted off and on. My father was kind of a weirdo! He lived for a long time in New York City and on the East Coast, grew up very, very poor, but had this great love of music. In our house, we listened to opera and jazz. Even though we didn’t go to many museums, we were exposed to those kinds of things, because both of my parents were interested in those kinds of things and encouraged us. We all played instruments.

Susan: We had a lot of music in our house, too. My dad sang. I played an instrument. I still play every now and then. I think for our age, in a lot of ways, it was our parents who were that basic influence starting out. I don’t think we had that at school, or I didn’t.

A: Do you have any particular tour experiences that stand out as memorable?

Michael: I had one tour group where everyone was Burmese. They spoke hardly any English. They had an interpreter, but she was limited too. It was just really interesting to see the reaction of those kids. They were really excited and interested in everything. They came through when we had the exhibition of Burmese photographs [Daybreak in Myanmar]. They were very well behaved, but they did talk to each other very quietly. I think for the vast majority of them, it was the first time they’d ever been in a museum, and their eyes were just huge. To see their own culture, although most of them were probably not born in Burma, but they could recognize the makeup on the cheeks, the clothing, etc.

Susan: I had one little girl on a tour. We were looking at the Faith Ringgold print [To Be or Not to Be Free] with the story around it. That was literally my first tour when that was up. There is just something about it that brings me to tears when we talk about it and we read it, and I try to get the kids to put themselves in that situation. I remember we were moving on, and this one little girl just stood there and looked at it. I had to go back and get her! I’ll always remember that because of how it held her. It meant a lot to me that she took that time to look at it.

Michael: I have another that was really interesting. Remember the photos of the kid with autism by his father [Timothy Archbold’s Echolilia]? We walked in there and I started to talk about what it was about, and asked if any of the kids knew what autism was. This kid put his hand up and said his brother was autistic. So I asked him to explain what that means. All of the sudden, the whole group had a different experience, and he did it! He taught them what it was like to live with someone like that. It was really cool.

A: Are there any other exhibitions that were particularly memorable to tour?

Susan: Kids love the Peter Bremers glass. I think over the five years I’ve been here as a docent, the kids probably reacted most to that exhibition [Bremers’ Looking Beyond the Mirror, 2018]. One of the things that I like to point out to the kids is that the lighting itself is another art form. When we look at the lights and shadows, that’s a discovery moment for them. And I guess that’s really what we want. They really related to that glass, and that’s interesting to me!

I’ve had very strong reactions to Ravi Zupa’s Mightier Than too. Especially when you talk about words being powerful too—it’s discovery again. We’ve talked about bullying and I think the teachers appreciate when you can bring something like that in. Visually, that is going to stick with them probably more than the glass. They’re going to remember that weapon, but then they’re also going to remember that it wasn’t really a weapon but that it can be.

Michael: My experience with that exhibit, is that I always ask “why would he do this?” And even the teachers are mystified until I say that it’s about the power of words and you can see the teachers’ lightbulb go on, that they could use this in so many ways!

Susan: The first time I walked in that exhibit, I thought it was really guns!

Michael: Me too! I’ve gotten so I’ll warn my group before we go in: “It looks like guns, but they’re really not. We’ll talk about it.”

Susan: When the Scholastic Awards are here, the upper elementary kids (before they get to middle school) when they see what can be done, I think that might make some kids more adventurous in trying art that wouldn’t have before.

Docent Michael Greene leads a school tour through Peter Bremers’ sculpture. Docents asked students to stop just inside the gallery threshold and take a moment to look at the works, then walk towards the one they liked the most. Students then had to respond to questions about why that work drew them in, looking at the label to find out more information. Photograph by Alyssa Dumire.

A: What does being a docent mean to you? Why are you a docent?

Michael: I was thinking about it earlier and it just kind of popped into my head. This sounds really weird…But I’m kinda doing it for myself! It gives me a good feeling to be able to do this. I’m learning a lot. It’s giving me, actually, some confidence about being able to teach and communicate with a great variety of people. I thoroughly enjoy it. Obviously, it’s for the kids too, but I get something from it personally. It’s for my mental health!

Susan: I would agree although I feel a little selfish for thinking that. I really knew nothing about art, other than going to some museums. I’m one of those “I don’t know what art is but I like what I like.” I was never an abstract fan, but now I love so much of the abstract art! So, I agree, it is for me too which I think it should be!

Michael: Oh, I agree, otherwise I don’t think we’d be any good at it!

Susan: I think one of the things for me that is so interesting, is that for me growing up, this never happened. You did not take field trips to the art museum or any museum. I think it is so important that particularly lower-income children, who never have an avenue, get the experience of coming to the museum. The reactions of those children in particular—that’s why I do this I think. When you have a child that ends up taking your hand and is just wide-eyed and says “I want to come back!”

We want kids to become more curious about art, whatever form it is. I guess, for me, that’s really what it comes down to. I want kids to be more curious and do more discovering.

Michael: A couple weeks ago, as we were leaving, the teacher said to me, that several of the kids said this was the greatest thing they’d ever done. They had so much fun! And that feels good. I wasn’t even sure that they were catching it.

Susan: I think we really want them to say they had fun. If they had fun, they were listening.

Michael: They didn’t say a word! I had to drag every single word out of them, but after it was over, I had five kids standing around me. They had all kinds of questions! It was really interesting.

Susan: I like to hear you say some of this stuff with your background of having gone to the Art School, I’m thinking that you know so much more than me. I think I learn almost every tour. That is important to me. And listening to the other docents too, when they add things.

Michael: There are a lot of people in this group that don’t have an art background, but that’s fine because we learn from them too! All of their backgrounds blend together and help all of us.

Docent Susan Elser leads some younger museum goers on a tour of David Shapiro’s works. With our younger guests, we start with the basics: color, shape and line. Photograph by Alyssa Dumire.

A: What do you think the value of being a docent is to the community?

Susan: I just think it is new experiences. So many children would never walk through those doors by themselves. Their parents wouldn’t. When we get preschool groups, I’m always astounded with how many parents come with them. Some of the younger dads would come up to me after a tour and share how much they enjoyed it, and I think that we’re here for their kids, but we’re introducing this grown man to something he never would have experienced either. I find it very rewarding when parents come on tours.

Michael: I find the same thing. When I do a tour that has a lot of adults in it, I spend quite a bit of the tour talking to them—I feel as if I talk to the parents and teachers on an adult level, the kids will pick it up too. I enjoy that.

But for the community, as Sue said, so many of these kids would never have the opportunity to visit, that’s why I think it’s such a great program. I think that because of that, word spreads, and that helps get more people in this place. It’s a betterment for our community. It enhances the community as a whole. It’s more than giving a tour to a bunch of little kids—it’s exposing them to new ideas that they then express to more people. It’s exponential.

Michael: When I meet people and tell them that I give tours at the art museum, they’re fascinated!

Susan: I have that same reaction, first they don’t know what a docent is, but when I tell them, they go, “that’s really cool!”

Interested in joining our fabulous docent corps? Get in touch to find out more information! Contact Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education, at alyssa.dumire@fwmoa.org.

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