Gallery guides a treasure at Crystal Bridges

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 67 views 

BENTONVILLE— When most people spend eight months in school, it’s part of advancing through a degree program or there is some other reward in sight.

For dozens of volunteers at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the end of a long, intense training program may not include a degree but the rewards are still rich. The museum’s gallery guides program graduated its second group of guides on Dec. 4, more than doubling the number of gallery guides who are carefully trained to provide the museum’s most in-depth in-person tours of the art work and grounds.

Aaron Jones, guide program manager, said the original group of 38 gallery guides was chosen before the museum was even constructed. The museum staff hosted an information session where they discussed the program’s intensity but also the rewards. They then interviewed people who still expressed an interest and invited 60 people to participate. By the time the program finished, 38 graduated in the original corps of gallery guides, he said.

There is also a corps of volunteers that are in a different guide program, the trail guides. There are 16 guides in that program, he said. Those guides take people on tours of the grounds and point out specific pieces of art that are outside as well as some of the natural beauty that surrounds the museum.

Ed and Marinell Adair are both involved in the guide programs, Ed on the trails and Marinell is one of the original gallery guides.

“We’ve lived in the area almost 44 years and always like to give back,” Marinell Adair said. “I wanted to help.”

As a self-proclaimed “life-long learner,” Adair said she has been fascinated to learn so much about the various pieces of art, history and even more about different industries. For example, she recently took a tour group past an art work that is made from metal. Someone on the tour had a background in metal working and he was able to enrich the experience by discussing in more detail the work that the artist had to go through to make the piece perfect.

The intense program and seeing how different individuals interpret the art has taught her a new appreciation for detail, Marinell said.

“Before, I would look at things but I didn’t really see them,” she said. “I would see a person’s face but not necessarily notice their eyes (or other details). I see things now. I don’t just look. It gives me goose bumps.”

A side benefit has been the opportunity to meet new people and to catch up with old ones, she said. She recently ran into someone she hasn’t seen since college, Marinell said.

The learning and the new friends has given her a drive for more.

“I do more reading at the library because I want to learn as much as possible,” she said. “I’m so happy to have been part of the learning. This has been a blessing in my life.”

The curriculum that the guides learn throughout the eight-month long process includes art, history and even social development.

The first part is about the elements and principles of art, including texture, light, repetition and contrast. The guides in training also discuss what the artist was trying to communicate, combined with contextual discussions about why the artwork was created and why it is in the collection. They are, in effect, taught how to identify with the art and the artist to help convey that message to those on the tour.

Generational development and personal skills are another major component of the course, including understanding how different generations learn and how that translates into giving an effective tour. They are also taught how to work with varying personalities in a group from the potentially overbearing know-it-all to the shy person who shows an obvious interest and needs to be drawn out.

The guides learn about art principles in general, but they focus on the artworks that are in the guided tours at the museum. There are two available guided tours. One is of popular pieces that are often on art lovers’ “bucket list” to see, Jones said. The other, Greatest Hits and Strong Women, is artwork that either features an influential woman or the artist herself was considered an influential woman.

There is generally at least one artwork featured in each gallery and there are usually six pieces of art in each tour, which lasts about 50 minutes each. There are public “drop-in” tours each day the museum is open at 2:30 p.m. and it’s first come, first serve. Each tour can hold about 15-20 people. Tours can also be scheduled for groups, Jones said.

The gallery guides are also used during large events for “ask me” stations — areas where gallery guides are available to answer questions from guests at the event.

Hillary Heywood is one of the 39 people who graduated from the program Dec. 4.

Joining the program was part of a New Year’s resolution where she decided to volunteer more. With her art history background and her flexible work schedule, joining the gallery guide corps was a perfect fit.

“I’ve been able to experience this world-class museum and be a part of it,” she said.

The lessons the guides provide for the audiences also gives them the opportunity to interact with the art as well, she said.

Now that there are nearly 80 gallery guides, 2013 will be an assessment year for the program, Jones said. In 2014, more guides will be trained with a new curriculum that incorporates what was learned in the first two programs. The museum is also busy with on-going training and learning programs for the gallery guides that have already graduated.

Jones said the trail guides program will also be expanded and developed, and a new architectural tour that focuses on the museum’s architectural features is being considered for March. That guide group will be developed from current gallery and trail guides, he said.