Building Docent Community in Our Virtual World

Jessica Gaynor, Chair-Elect, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Docent Council (Fall 2021)

Little did we know how much we missed each other and our connection to our museum, until one day, no, actually, one year, we had to do without. This is the story of how the docents at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) stayed connected not only with one another, but with docents in museums all over our country.

Seizing the Zoom Opportunity
In December of 2019 the FAMSF finished training 72 new docents. We were now 200 strong. The new docents took the floor in January 2020, and in March 2020 our museum closed its doors. Then, the most remarkable thing happened. Because our training program is two years long and each week this new class meet in small seminars in the galleries, with the help of Zoom, they re-gathered into their seminar groups. The newly-minted docents had bonded. Within a month, they established a weekly Zoom meet-up to talk, educate one another, have some fun, and stand in solidarity.

Docents Don’t Skip a Beat
Meanwhile, our docent leadership re-grouped, and figured out that by utilizing Zoom, we could pivot the weekly continuing education meetings in our museum classrooms and lecture halls to a virtual space. Docent leadership reached-out to the new class of docents, and they stepped-up to offer educational programming such as virtual conversations about artwork in our permanent collections and art-related fun and games.

Moving from small museum classrooms to a larger audience of docents viewing virtually from their homes, the outreach of docent study groups increased substantially. The photography study group flourished using PowerPoint slides and a Zoom platform, and this Photography and New Media Study Group produced three virtual presentations. The highlight was honoring women’s history month in 2021. The group examined 12 decades of women in photography with Women Behind the Lens: Six Female Photographers.

NDSC Building Community 1 Women photographers

A team of docents created virtual Short Talks. These short talks take a deep but brief dive into a single work of art from our museum’s permanent collection. Using PowerPoint slides and video-editing, docents present a 10-minute movie on a single work of art. To date, over two dozen movies have been produced and comprise a unique digital library of information.

To lift our spirits during the 2020 holidays, docents devised a virtual contest to design the best cocktail inspired by an artwork in our permanent collection. There were five categories of winning cocktails – artistic, creative, tempting, humorous, and exotic. The most artistic cocktail winner was the Lilytini, inspired by Monet’s Water Liles, ca. 1914 – 1917. Docent Lynne Steinbach offers her original recipe:

NDSC Building Community 2 NDSC Building Community 3 lilytini

4 parts Bombay Sapphire Gin or the gin of your choosing
1 part blue curacao
Small pink and purple or red roses
Sage leaves

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add gin, blue curacao, and dry vermouth (optional). Shake vigorously until combined.
Strain sapphire martini into a martini glass. Garnish with four roses and sage leaves.

Outreach – Access Tours and Art Talks
The FAMSF docent provided Access tours use PowerPoint slides coupled with a Zoom platform to offer visitors with disabilities an opportunity to enjoy the artwork in our museum galleries. For individuals with physical limitations in particular, but also for those with cognitive impairment Zoom tours are such a bonus. Access has given more Zoom low vision tours in the past five months than in the past two years.

Prior to the closing of our museum, docents presented live Art Talks to our community partners, including many public libraries throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. These talks, usually a PowerPoint presentation of 45-60 minutes in length, shared the pleasure and intellectual stimulation of looking at art from our museums’ special exhibitions. Now Art Talks can offer these same virtual presentations with PowerPoint slides and a Zoom platform and reach a much wider community audience.

Now our Art Talks program is exchanging virtual tours with docents from all over the country. Docents from Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia “traveled” virtually for a docent art talk at the FAMSF. And, we, too, as docents “traveled” to these cities to enjoy their art collections.

DEAI Commitment
The FAMSF is committed to becoming an anti-racist institution. Toward this end, the museum designed and offered a 15-week virtual Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Access training program for all its docents. Docents are grateful. We are doing hard work, learning to confront and reflect on our personal biases, build trust and respect amongst ourselves, improve our communication skills, and commit to creating tours and programs acknowledging the new narrative and research of our museum that addresses social and racial justice for all.

We are waiting, not idle, but well-prepared to re-enter our museum.