Celebrating 40 Years: Discussing a Roadmap for Change

Interview by Shelagh Barrington, Gallery Guide, Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto, Canada; NDSC Regional Director, Canada

Anne Stellmon considers service to the community part of her DNA. When circumstances led her to settle in Denver, Colorado, she took the opportunity to become a docent at the Denver Museum of Art in 2003. In 2009, she attended the National Docent Symposium in Toronto, Canada, where she saw the dynamic relationships between docents/guides created by the Symposium. She was selected as a Regional Director for the NDS Council, and in 2015 was elected President of the Council. Following her term of office, Anne continues to support the activities of the Council. She plans to attend the Symposium in Kansas City in 2022.

NDSC Interview Anne Stellmon imageAnne Stellmon, former NDSC President; Docent, Denver Art Museum

In the fall of 2021, after 18 months of Covid-related disruptions in the museum world, I talked to Anne to discuss the changes she is experiencing at the Denver Art Museum (“DAM”).

Anne, you mentioned that in the past few years, even before Covid-19, change was in the works at the DAM?

Yes, the Martin building, the oldest of three buildings on the DAM campus, was reopened in October 2021 after extensive remodeling begun in 2018. [See Mountain Views and Fresh Perspectives at the Denver Art Museum, Smithsonian Magazine (November 1, 2021)].

NDSC Stellmon Denver Art Museum

In talking to a number of fellow docents I have observed a trend toward change around museum renovations. Especially as DEAI (diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion) concerns become more relevant, museum leadership is using the window of down time to make “big changes” including with their docent programs and training. Was this what happened at the DAM?

Yes, at the DAM this was also the case. Our docents were fortunate that during renovations and Covid-19 shutdowns our training continued, and we adapted to a new model for both adult and school tours.

How did the process evolve?

During the renovations and continuing through Covid disruptions, members of the docent community along with other representatives of the 400 member volunteer community were asked to join staff in developing a new Volunteer Strategic Plan. The volunteers on the committee were fully engaged. One of the results of the process affected our 150 member docent population. Our docent organization was turned inside out. Docents went from being generalists, touring the entire collection to specialists concentrating on touring one department. During this transitional period of major change only three of our 150 docents chose to leave.

That is amazing. I like the way the DAM docents really got behind the changes and became part of the process.
Have the changes been implemented in docent tours?

Our new “Specialist” docents model went into effect in April of 2021 and touring began in November. However, we are currently only offering tours to DAM members as a way of reducing the size of tours.

I understand that you were involved throughout the entire process, and you are now the liaison for the largest group of docents in the European/American Art department, one of the seven museum departments.

Yes, and it’s been good! The difference for the Denver docents in adapting to a new concept and getting behind new goals was the ability and desire of staff and docents to listen and hear each other…collaboration.

Thank you for your insights. I understand that you plan to be one of the presenters for a session “Roadmap for a Docent Reset” at the Kansas City Symposium in September 2022.

Yes, I really appreciate the way that the NDS Council and the Symposium planners are searching for innovative ideas for docents to deal with these challenging times. It’s been a pleasure to discuss this with you!