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What I Learned From Crystal Bridges Gallery Guides

Gallery Guide Bob DeGarmo leads a family tour during Preschool Playdate.

Gallery Guide Bob DeGarmo leads a family tour during Preschool Playdate.

Gallery Guide Bob DeGarmo leads a family tour.

Assessment can be an unpleasant word.  A simple online search reveals synonyms such as evaluation, judgment, rating, and analysis.  Sounds painful…  Perhaps hearing the word brings back nightmares of pop quizzes, impossible multiple-choice tests, and final evaluations.

In the spring of this year, I began to create and pilot an Assessment Process for the Gallery Guides, a group of 58 committed volunteers that offer the Gallery Tours for the Museum.   I was not excited about introducing such a process.  I have experience myself as a volunteer and docent at other institutions, and the thought of a clipboard-clad evaluator lurking in the background during one of my tours did not strike me as a fun experience.  With that said, it is my opinion that assessment is an essential part of the Guide Program at Crystal Bridges.  Assessment benefits each volunteer guide by establishing a baseline of performance and identifying areas where guides do their best and areas where they require more training from staff.  Assessment also benefits the Museum by measuring and establishing consistency of tours for the public.  Finally, assessment benefits Museum guests by measuring the two key pieces of the tours—engagement and accuracy—that, when combined, create the best guest experience.  Nevertheless, even though I truly believe that assessment is a critical part of the Guide Program, I was not expecting to enjoy it at all.

Gallery Guide Carol Carlson conducts an informal "Ask Me" tour of the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery.

Gallery Guide Carol Carlson conducts an informal “Ask Me” tour of the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery.

And then it was here … a summer full of assessment.  There I was with my clipboard attempting to stay inconspicuous but still near enough to hear and hopefully catch a glimpse of the experience that was playing out in front of me.  I evaluated 56 tours over the course of the summer, and I set up follow-up meetings or phone conversations for each.

I will not exaggerate and say that every moment was enjoyable, but I will say that I was awed over and over again by the talents of each and every Gallery Guide.  Every tour was unique … an individual interpretation of the same material.

One Gallery Guide showed me how a sense of humor could be incorporated naturally (and professionally) into her tour.  Another Gallery Guide amazed me with his depth of knowledge and the true commitment that he makes daily to continue learning everything he can about our collection (and American Art in general).  I noticed educators incorporating their backgrounds from the classroom to creating wonderful conversations in front of works.  I watched an engineer take content that was totally foreign to him a year ago and create unique connections from artwork to artwork.

Heidi Carlsen leads a kid-friendly tour during Preschool Playdate.

Heidi Carlsen leads a kid-friendly tour during Preschool Playdate.

I have truly enjoyed witnessing each and every one of the tours and spending time getting to know each Guide a little better during one-on-one sessions after the evaluations.  To sum up my experience, I want to leave you with an interaction that I had with a guest while assessing a tour: A museum guest approached me as a Gallery Guide completed his discussion of Joan Mitchell’s Untitled, the last stop on the Collection Highlights tour.  She took me aside and told me that she had been dragging her kids from gallery to gallery all day and they had hated every minute of it.  Then, her family stumbled unexpectedly on the tour in progress.  One of her children turned to her after hearing the Gallery Guide speak about Joan Mitchell and said “Mom that man made me see that painting differently.  Why haven’t we been following him around all day?”  She was so pleased that she had happened upon this Gallery Guide’s tour and felt that her children had, for the first time, really connected to a work of art at Crystal Bridges.

I am extremely lucky to have the pleasure of working with the individuals that make up the Guide Program … a small sliver of the dedicated group of volunteers that offer their time here at Crystal Bridges.    It is truly an honor.