Making the shift from Ask Me to Art Chat at Carnegie Museum of Art (Summer 2019)

Art Chat Art Chat Carnegie Museum of Art

Hattie Lehman, Associate Curator of Education, Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, PA) 

In 2018, Carnegie Museum of Art switched from our Ask Me program to our current model, Art Chats. Between the education staff and docent corps, the now-popular Art Chat program took a full year to create, pilot, and tweak. These chats are 30-minute in-gallery conversations based on the museum’s collection and special exhibitions. They are designed to bridge the divide between the visitor’s desire to talk with an expert and their apprehension at committing to a full hour tour. Art Chats relieve the pressure to initiate conversations that docents felt in an Ask Me role while providing an opportunity for docent-led engagement around big ideas and exhibition content.

In designing these shorter Art Chats, Carnegie Museum of Art wanted to provide new opportunities for docents to interact with the drop-in visitor beyond the longer, daily public tour. Staff and docents alike struggled with the Ask Me role and wanted to utilize the docents’ deep knowledge and warm personalities in a more structured yet still flexible way. Through a few different iterations and changes, we have landed in a great place.

Over the summer months, Carnegie Museum of Art offers three daily Art Chats. Each one is different and dependent on the docent’s personal style and interests. An Art Chat can be presented as an exhibition overview that highlights one to three objects on view, focus on an individual artist’s technique and process, or follow the lead of its participants by discussing the artworks the visitors find most fascinating or puzzling. They are ideal for breaking up a sprawling exhibition, such as the 2018 Carnegie International, which included works by over 30 artists and had pieces throughout our museum, into smaller chunks by highlighting one to three artworks or artists during the daily 30-minute discussion. Docents rotated the content of the Art Chat every two weeks so that over its five-month run visitors had the chance to discuss every artist in the exhibition.

Art Chats also help boost participation in the daily public tour. Docents mention this tour at the end of each Art Chat. We have found that after enjoying this short, dynamic discussion, there is an increase in visitors’ willingness to commit to the 60-minute tour. Once they have a dialogue-based experience at the museum with a docent, visitors realize the value of speaking with a knowledgeable person about their ideas and personal responses to the artwork. Art Chats help break the initial stereotype that docents are here simply to lecture. They have truly expanded how drop-in visitors interact with the docent corps.