Above: High Museum of Art docents Linda Weber (left) and Deedi Henson; photos by Isadora Pennington
They greet new arrivals at the front doors of the High Museum of Art daily and stand ready to guide visitors—many of them wide-eyed elementary students—through the museum’s collections. They’re called docents. Many are retirees. They answer questions, teach museum newcomers about art and help introduce them to the wonders of painting and sculpture.
At the High, these volunteers must be extremely knowledgeable. The training for docents and specialized volunteers can be intensive and often requires continuous education programs throughout the year.
“It’s a lot more fun than I ever thought it was going to be,” said Julia Emmons, one of the newest faces to the High Museum of Art’s docent program, having joined two years ago when she was 74. She retired from her position as the director of the Peachtree Road Race about 10 years earlier.
In the 50 years that Emmons has lived in the city, she has served as the head of the Atlanta Track Club, taught at Emory University, was involved with international track and field politics during the 1996 Olympics and become involved with civic causes, serving on the Atlanta City Council for four years.
Her appreciation for art took a huge leap forward during college when she studied abroad in Paris. “Every Sunday morning, I’d go down to the impressionist museum and sort of say hello to all my favorite paintings,” Emmons said. “From then on, I never looked back.”
The role of a docent at the High is to lead tours, usually of children, through the permanent collection and special exhibits. With as many as 150 students visiting on any given day during the school year, the job puts docents up close and personal with young, inquisitive minds.
The interactions with children is something that many volunteers see as a bonus. “There was a period of time when I was raising my children and I didn’t want anything to do with children’s tours,” explained Peggy Brann. But now, being a grandmother, it has renewed her appreciation for the work. “They’re so uninhibited. It’s fun!”
Before coming to work at the High, this New Orleans native had been a homemaker and kindergarten teacher. “I’ve always loved art,” she said. “My father used to take us to art museums, and I have architects on both sides of my family. It’s in the genes.” She admits to loving the visual aspects of the work and the chance to discover new things. “I just love it. I learn about art; I think it’s important to continue to grow and learn,” said Brann.
For Howard Elkins, his favorite part of the work is interacting with the children. “I like adults and I work with adults, but I have grandchildren, and in a way, it’s an extension of dealing with your grandchildren,” said Elkins, a docent since 2004 who generally leads tours twice a week. “It’s interesting to see their eyes opening.”
An art lover and collector, Elkins said, “When I could afford it, I began to collect art.” In his career, he was a business executive at a variety of automotive, travel and food oriented industries. Prior to retiring, Elkins was a CEO of a venture capital company. He says the skills he learned in those jobs are beneficial in his role as docent. “The High is a central part of my life,” he said.
The museum draws some enthusiastic volunteers, such as Ellen Nemhauser, who has been volunteering for 20 years. “It’s the longest I’ve ever worked at any job,” she said with a laugh.
Prior to retirement, Nemhauser was a librarian, working at institutions such as Cornell University and Emory. “When I retired, I was looking for volunteer jobs that had an endless learning curve. This one does, because the High is always getting new exhibitions and we get trained on what they are all about.”
The High offers tours that are centered around a variety of aptitude levels and emphasize different elements of art. One program that particularly excited Nemhauser is the STEAM program, which sets out to discuss the intersection of science, math and art.
Another ex-librarian who found a happy home in the docent program at the High is Tom Budlong. Born in Alaska, his father’s army assignments brought him to a variety of places before Atlanta. He began working part time at the Adams Branch Library while he was in college. In all, Budlong worked in libraries for 30 years before retiring.
Seeing the artwork in person is a bonus, and Budlong cites the experiential glass installations by Gerhard Richter as a favorite. “You can see pictures of it from all different angles, but it’s one artwork that you can’t really see until you walk around it.”
For some visitors, it’s their first time in a museum, so it’s up to the docents to help them learn how to examine, consider and talk about art.
How people experience the art is of utmost importance for Pam Kelsey. She has been a docent for 13 years, and before that she taught art for 42 years. She went back to school at age 64 for a doctorate in art with a focus in museum studies. “I combined my love for museums, my art background and my love for special needs children,” she said.
“I noticed that there really wasn’t anything for the visually impaired,” she said, noting that most art is strictly for observing with sight, not touch or other senses. Kelsey has pioneered a program to address this discrepancy, and worked closely with the new director of the High, Rand Suffolk, to gather qualitative evidence in order to best help those with impairments as they experience the museum.
With assistance from the Center for Visual Impairment, Kelsey has learned a lot in the process, going so far as to base her thesis on the topic. “I really wanted to study the impact that art can have for children as they go through the museum. I consider the museums of our community as hubs. They’re not just areas for people to go through. I think they attract great things for the community.”
Beyond the altruistic love for giving back or the continued education opportunities, there is a significant benefit in the social aspects of the work. “I will tell you that I feel so privileged to be in the company of the docents who share this love with me,” said Linda Wener, a self-professed “newbie” docent of five years. In her career, Wener was a college counselor at a social services agency. As such, it was her job to help rising juniors and seniors with making informed decisions about higher education.
The experience of volunteering at the museum has provided opportunities for Wener to learn from not only the curators, other docents and staff of the museum, but also from the art lovers who attend the tours. “That is a joy,” she said. “I’m supposed to be guiding and teaching, but I’m equally learning and appreciating the people who come.”
Docent Deedi Henson calls the Woodruff Arts Center, where the High is located, her second home. “When my husband died,” she said, “there was only one place that I wanted to move and that was this area.” A docent at the High for 25 years, she has also been volunteering at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens for eight years.
Born with an inherent love for art and music, Henson has found fulfilment in the work and continued education opportunities offered by the programs. She believes that volunteering your time, energy and passions can greatly enhance your quality of life. “Give, so you can learn and want to create your own world,” she advised. “I guess it’s selfish, in a way. In giving, I am learning.”
Not every docent has spent many years on the museum campus; for some, being a docent has elevated their love for art into a calling. “I went to museums, and I took an art class at Emory, but I never set out to do this,” explained docent of six years, Barbara Seligman. “It just happened, and it’s wonderful.”
The Savannah native retired 17 years ago after 22 years as a teacher. “I’ve just never grown up,” she said with a laugh. Seligman has also been working as a docent at The Temple for the past 40 years, and she says that while she loves working with kids, she was burnt out on teaching in schools.
The frequent training is something that Seligman values. “I tell people that’s when I get paid because I learn so much,” she said. “It gave me a whole education in art, but if I weren’t doing all of these things, I’d be at home reading my books all day long and I’d never see anybody,” she said.
Nemhauser offers advice for anyone considering becoming a docent at the High Museum…just try it. Anyone who appreciates art can find success in the programs, she said. “Having an art background is not necessary. It’s a learn-on-the-job experience.”
To learn more about upcoming docent training at the High this fall, go to www.high.org/docents.