A Docent Program Evolves at the Tucson Museum of Art

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Julie Frankston, President, Tucson Museum of Art Docent Council

This show would be different…

In the spring of 2018, staff at the Tucson Museum of Art began intensive preparations for hosting and touring the critically acclaimed exhibit, 30 Americans. The show would run from October 6, 2018, until January 13, 2019.  Along with staff, security and volunteers, docents would undergo comprehensive training to prepare for visitors.

30 Americans showcases some of the most significant African American artists of the last four decades. Race, gender and historical identity are explored in contemporary context while diverse media, subject matter and perspectives are highlighted. Many works reveal not only the country’s changing view of race and class over the last 200 years, but the persistence of racism, violence and marginalization in America today.

As always, TMA docents would rise to the challenge and provide visitors with a welcoming environment in which to experience sensitive visual information. It would begin with a mandated safe harbor statement read aloud by docents in the lobby which states, in part:

“During our conversation, everyone is encouraged to share their thoughts and opinions. Topics discussed might address sensitive subject matter, so please be respectful of one another as you share ideas. Your feedback is welcome.”

By the time it closed, 30 Americans had broken TMA attendance records and boosted membership. Among the many lessons learned were:

•   Every visitor is an expert in their own lived experience.

•   Seeking expertise outside the museum is critical.

•   Engagement and conversation strategies empower visitors.

•   Practice of touring techniques makes perfect.

Taking it on the road…

In October 2019, docents attending the Washington, D.C. National Docent Symposium were asked to submit proposals for breakout sessions. TMA’s “Tackling Diversity and Cultural Sensitivity with Docents” was selected and our presentation received the extra honor of an encore performance (both SRO). The link can be found on the National Docent Symposium website here.

Back home…

In the years since 30 Americans visited Tucson, we have continued to broaden horizons where appropriate: staff partners with community organizations when planning events and programming; community co-curators help develop and display Permanent Collection works; and concepts like collaboration and dialogue inform our conversations.

For many years, the Tucson Museum of Art Docent Training Program was fashioned on an art history-based model. Although various touring techniques were taught along with art basics, it became obvious after 30 Americans that it was time to honor and implement TMA’s IDEA framework — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access. 

Ironically, the pandemic provided the space and time to re-envision how to accomplish that goal. Every day the Curator of Education and docents consider how to update curriculum, scheduling, speakers and establish benchmarks through the IDEA lens. With implementation of this policy across all museum platforms, we can take advantage of opportunities and connections offered by the museum’s Community Initiatives Committee and Community Engagement curators. 

Lessons learned…

Future docent trainees will undergo a rigorous training period in learning TMA-adapted visual thinking strategies and open-ended questions reinforced by voices from our community. Instead of field trips to artist studios to learn about technique and process and art history lectures, trainees will engage in modeling, in-gallery conversations, curator dialogue and encounters with community partners — multivocality, community-based curation and alternate points of view. Our goal is to help all visitors appreciate the museum experience by facilitating conversations. 

The next Docent Council Training Program is scheduled to begin in January 2022.

Another area impacted by lessons learned and adapted from the 30 Americans experience is a brand new student program called Visual Literacy.  It replaces a more traditional, didactic approach and will be based on:

•   new model — the ability to read, write and create visual images through language, communication and interaction

•   new curriculum Look, Observe, See, Describe, Analyze and Interpret

•   new technology — digital

The goal is to teach museum using the TMA Permanent Collection as the point of reference. Docents will facilitate conversations with students in a pre-museum classroom visit; a museum docent-led visit based on the earlier classroom encounter and accompanied by a related art-making project; and a subsequent classroom follow-up visit by the docent to ‘complete’ the conversation.

It is hoped that implementation of Visual Literacy will begin in fall 2021.