Against a backdrop of colorful Afghan carpets, a dozen or so first-year students listen attentively while student docents Julia Rockwell and Kevin Solorzano tag-team as leaders of a tour of the William Benton Museum of Art.
“Look carefully at these carpets,” Rockwell, also a freshman, suggests to the students. “You’ll see army tanks depicted in them, as the women who made the carpets include the things that affect their lives in their art.”
The students were taking a University Learning Skills seminar with Aaron Collins, an academic advisor with the Academic Center for Exploratory Students, part of the First Year Experience (FYE) program. The seminars are designed to help freshmen learn about UConn’s community resources.
With an increasing number of FYE instructors incorporating tours of the Benton into their curricula, the museum’s education coordinator Tracy Lawlor last year began training students to be docents, in an effort to increase the comfort level of freshmen, many of whom have never visited an art museum before. Benton docents have traditionally been adult volunteers.
“Students who haven’t been exposed to museums may give art a chance if they listen to another passionately excited student who is about their own age,” says Allison Footit. A junior art history major, Footit trained and served as a Benton docent last year. “I loved learning how to talk about art, both formally in terms of the painting or object itself, and conceptually about the ideas behind the work of art.”
Many of the FYE students visiting the Spirit of Afghanistan: Carpets of War and Hope exhibition took the docents’ advice. “I’m trying to observe little things, because you always see more when you take the time to look,” said Jules Saint-Louis, a freshman who plans to major in ancient history.
When the tour shifted to the Women’s Work, Women’s Dreams: A Century of Swedish Women’s Arts exhibition, docent Solorzano, a sophomore, used one of the paintings as an opportunity to talk about Impressionism. “I’m a communications major,” commented Rockwell, “so I can talk to the students about how I like the colors in the art. Because Kevin’s an art and art history major he feels comfortable answering students’ questions about the style of a particular work of art.”
Lawlor says student docents need not be fine arts majors. Participants so far have majored in French, journalism, political science, and the sciences. A potential docent’s willingness to commit the time to training is most important, including 90 minutes of instruction weekly, as well as homework, such as reading the catalogue for each exhibition. Additionally, students have to be reliable and become confident public speakers.
Students who become docents gain valuable experience that helps build their resumes. But mostly, they value the opportunity because it enhances their knowledge of art.
“I love learning about art by talking about it with other people,” Solorzano says, adding that he studies up on each exhibition. “I feel it’s my duty to tell people about art if they don’t understand something.”
Rockwell, who is related to painter Norman Rockwell, says she thinks the best thing about learning to be a docent is sounding more intelligent about art: “For the rest of my life I’ll know more about how to look at and ask questions about art.”
FYE student Lisette Espial, an exploratory major hoping to study resort management, was an active contributor to the group discussions that Rockwell and Solorzano initiated about the exhibits during her class tour. She was so impressed by her tour’s docents, she said, that she too would be interested in working as a student docent at the Benton.