Reflections on Gallery Docent Training

As a transplant to Los Angeles, it was exciting to be selected for training as a Getty docent. Over many years at Tate Gallery one was encouraged to lead tours using dialogue-based, object-focused methodology, with the understanding that the passive receipt of information does not supply the tools or confidence to approach artworks, nor motivate individual engagement with them. It was refreshing to find that the teaching strategy at the Getty is just as forward-thinking and interactive, carefully avoiding a disappointing and didactic lecture-on-wheels experience.

With the belief that works of art reveal themselves over time, the focus is firmly on ‘close looking’ at a limited number of objects and sharing within a supportive environment, the resultant lively dialogue benefiting from a multiplicity of perspectives. Appropriate contextual information is introduced to extend the dialogue, not suppress other possible meanings nor suggest a ‘definitive’ reading.

Summer training incorporated a fun and well-organized balance of theoretical underpinning and practical exercises. A fascinating dossier of reading material led to animated weekly group discussions. As we were tasked with developing individual themed tours, any fears were allayed as we were supported by research materials and helpful, patient staff. We were also treated to curator time – the decorative arts lecture led to a widespread re-evaluation of tour plans to shoehorn in a fancy bed, marquetry tour-de-force or gilded sconce or two.

Selecting only four objects from the embarrassment of riches on display was a headache until the realization that one could develop several tours and rotate them as appropriate. Flexibility with object choices avoids dismay when the morning gallery mapping stars are not aligned. How liberating the ability to sneak off behind Titian’s back and leave Friedrich to his pondering whilst one runs away with Puryear and Hepworth or spends time striking poses with Batoni!

It has been such fun working with the mutually supportive, dynamic people in our group as colleagues and new friends. It is a pleasure to fulfill our collective duty to keep artworks alive by creatively engaging the next generation of visitors!

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(Originally published in the Gazetty, the internal Getty newsletter)

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