scenes at the museum

Joke Slagle, who left her paid position in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s development office to spend more time with her children, loves being  able to use her master’s degree in art history as a volunteer docent.

Ten fourth graders stand mesmerized in front of a giant gold wall in the Carnegie Museum of Art. Their excitement is nearly as palpable as their curiosity. Museum docent Marilyn Finberg starts asking the children questions, and with her guidance, they discern that the carved birds look like seagulls and the background resembles waves on a sea. Ultimately, they decide this piece of art must have to do with sailing. “Yes,” Finberg agrees, The Chariot of Aurora is a decorative panel from the opulent French ocean liner Normandie, which sailed in the 1930s. Pleased with their sleuthing, the children practically skip to the next work of art.

Museum docent Marilyn Finberg, a former Spanish teacher, tells children about this decorative panel from a 1930s French ocean liner.
Museum docent Marilyn Finberg, a former Spanish teacher, tells children about this decorative panel from a 1930s French ocean liner.

Such are the special moments in the life of an art docent. Finberg, Washington Road, loves touring with students who have never been to the museum, validating their responses to artwork and then adding information so that it becomes their own. And she is not alone. Eleven other Mt. Lebanonites have invested years of study for the opportunity to lead weekly tours at the Carnegie Museum of Art for no financial compensation. But their rewards come in other forms. By studying the works together and sharing the art with visitors, these docents not only perform a valuable service, but also have developed their own arts community.

And although Finberg, a former Spanish teacher, makes the process look effortless, being a docent requires a lot of work. Even after 12 years, she says, “For every tour, I make sure I study for an hour. If you have a unique tour (say, an AP history class studying a particular time period) sometimes it’s days.”

And before docents can even think about giving a tour, they go through nearly 18 months of training. Applicants must first complete a 14-week survey of art history course. Only then will they be considered for the Carnegie’s yearlong docent training program. Docent Kathy Dax, Vanderbilt Drive, who has an art degree from Carnegie Mellon University, says the Carnegie Museum’s art training “is like going through a master’s program without having to write the dissertation.”

What’s more, after docents complete this intensive study, they continue their learning with two-hour training sessions every Monday from September to June. “This is a volunteer job that comes with homework,” says  the Carnegie Museums Education Director Marilyn Russell, North Meadowcroft Avenue.

The Carnegie Museum of Art has 45 docents; 12 reside in Mt. Lebanon. Why the concentration is so high in our town is a matter of speculation, but docent and clinical psychologist Emily Stevick, Morrison Drive, thinks it might be because our community is educated and well traveled. Plus, Mt. Lebanon’s location makes it so easy, she adds, “We have a population that orients itself to the city and to the arts.”

It is that strong arts orientation that gives Carnegie Museum of Art docents an enduring bond. “Some of my best friends have come through this connection,” says Marcia Rubenstein, Oak Park Place, a docent since 1984. It’s hard work but intellectually stimulating.

Joke Slagle, Morrison Drive, echoes this enthusiasm. Slagle, a docent for three years, has a masters degree in art history and used to work in the development office at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Becoming a docent gave her a way to “stay in the game” and keep herself challenged after she made the decision to be home with her young children. “This is pure bliss for me,” she adds, “It’s a perfect thing for a stay-at-home mom—especially if art is your love.”

Apart from the camaraderie, being the bridge between art and its visitors keeps docents enthused. You get a sense when a piece is really speaking to someone, says Stevick. “It’s almost a holy experience.”

Docents keep their tours conversational, which reduces the intimidation factor. “So many times we give [people] their first experience at a museum,” says Slagle, “It’s so gratifying to see them inspired.”

Finberg says docents make sure all voices are heard. She remembers giving a tour to incarcerated men; they could see things no one else did. When a child with special needs came with a school group, she made sure that child got to share ideas as well.

Each docent tour is as unique as the docents themselves. They give public tours daily at 1:30 (at no additional charge), which generally focus on the traveling shows. The most recent traveling show was Inventing the Modern World, Decorative Arts at Worlds Fairs 1851-1939. This exhibit included more than 200 decorative objects that the docents had to understand both historically and artistically. Learning all this information in a short period of time is a lot of work, says Dax. “You need to know the collection and think on your feet.” She remembers leading one tour that included a woman in a wheelchair. Dax immediately changed her plan and focused on pieces that the woman could see clearly from a seated position.

Marilyn Russell, the art museum’s curator of education, oversees the docents’ yearlong training, which includes a 14-week survey of art history course and two-hour weekly training sessions from September to June.
Marilyn Russell, the art museum’s curator of education, oversees the docents’ yearlong training, which includes a 14-week survey of art history course and two-hour weekly training sessions from September to June.

School groups comprise about 75 percent of docent tours. The “Looking and Learning” tour gives students an introduction to art and teaches them critical thinking and communication skills as they share insights about the pieces. But tours can also be completely tailored. Language classes often focus on works of art by Spanish or French artists. Dax remembers a tour conducted solely in French. One band tour concentrated on artistic works dealing with music. The museum recently added tours for people with dementia. “The museum tries to get people from all aspects of society,” says Dax, “That’s the future of museums.”

But being a great docent is more than just knowing about art. “You have to have a little ham in you,” says Dax. Any audio tour can give visitors factual information, but docents make the tour a conversation. It’s the 80-20 philosophy, says Rubenstein. People remember 80 percent of what they identify themselves. “Through dialogue, they will own it.”

There’s humor too. Stevick remembers asking a group of third graders about a nineteenth century woman in a Mary Cassatt painting. The woman had her chin in her hand, and when asked what they thought this woman was doing, one boy suggested, “talking on her cell phone.”

This is why the docent training not only includes the study of art history, but also learning theory, how to engage people, listening and ways to assess your audience. “Our world is so filled with visual and audible stimuli,” says Stevick, “that we survive by shutting down. In these tours we reawaken the visual sense.” In addition, art awakens the mind. “Art is a place where history, society, areas of knowing about the world come together,” she adds.
This is especially true when the art collection is as extensive and varied as the Carnegie’s—spanning from ancient Greece to the 21st century. Visitors often are surprised to find that Pittsburgh hosts a world-class museum. “Out of town guests can’t believe it,” says Rubenstein, “They’re dumbfounded.”

Until recently, the Carnegie’s art collection was displayed chronologically, but now director Lynn Zelevansky is re-hanging the collection by key movements such as Impressionism, Contemporary and sculpture. Grouping the artwork this way better displays the depth of the museum’s collections.

Interestingly, many of the museum’s most valuable and recognized pieces were purchased from artists exhibiting in the Carnegie International, the world’s second oldest contemporary art show. When Andrew Carnegie launched his namesake exhibit in 1895, he charged his curators “to collect the great masters of tomorrow,” says Stevick. More than 100 years later, the show is still going strong. The next Carnegie International opens in October 2013 and will showcase 30 to 40 cutting-edge artists. Cramming about lesser-known artwork makes for “a quick learn,” says Stevick, “but I find it very exciting. It really keeps me going.”

The Carnegie International isn’t the only thing that keeps the museum current. The art museum is integrating more and more technology into its exhibits. The Teenie Harris exhibit (a well-known photographer from Pittsburgh’s Hill District), featured computer stations where visitors could access additional information about Harris’s photographs. The Impressionist gallery has a video of Monet painting his water lilies at Giverny. “We are always interested in things that will cause people to look longer, be more curious,” says Russell. She expect that it won’t be long before docents carry iPads loaded with video clips to enhance the art experience.

And that enhancement is what matters most to docents. Rubenstein recalls a quiet child who “got a spark” on her tour and started talking animatedly about the art. His teacher told her later that the child hadn’t said a word in class for two months. “That’s like a prize,” she says “when you’ve been able to make a difference by engaging them in art work.”

In addition to the women interviewed for this article, the other Mt. Lebanon docents are Karen Funaro, Carla Kirchner, Donald Mosshart, Sandy Loughren, Mary Ewalt, Kathi Fechter and Fran Frederick.                                         ­