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Contemporary art gallery training high school docents

by Beth Krane - December 5, 2005

As Barry Rosenberg covered the fuschia walls that served as the backdrop for the exhibit Kiss and installed dark wood paneling for the space’s latest show, Libraries, there were more eyes on him than usual.

Three seniors from E.O. Smith High School were watching the museum’s transformation, as part of a new student docent program at the Contemporary Art Galleries. The program was launched this fall by Rosenberg, the gallery’s director.

The high school students spent one afternoon a week after school learning about the artists and works showcased in each exhibit, so they could lead classes of their peers through the gallery and teach them to appreciate contemporary art.

“It’s cool to see the transformation of the same space from exhibit to exhibit and really interesting to see where Barry puts certain pieces of art and why,” says E.O Smith senior Rebecca Noonan.

“Some kids are reluctant to talk about the exhibits at first, but I try to stress that there are no wrong answers,” she adds. “I want them to feel comfortable.”

Noonan says her peers handled Kiss – an exhibit with nudity and suggestive pieces – in a more mature way than she expected.

“They didn’t make inappropriate comments. I even heard them talking about the exhibit the next day in school, and some came up to me and asked me more questions about it,” she says.

This month’s exhibit, Libraries – a multi-media show featuring a dozen international artists who have used the library’s architectural appearance, collections, and research role to explore their personal values and thoughts on place, space, gender expectations, and 21st century life – is more introspective. The students envision a different challenge when it comes to getting their schoolmates to discuss the art.

“It feels like you’re in a library, so people might feel like you have to be quiet and aren’t supposed to talk,” says high school senior Katie Hannafin.

Rosenberg says he had several reasons for launching the new student docent program, which he runs with the help of two graduate assistants.

“I view the docent program as a way to diversify the gallery’s audience. This is a way to attract younger patrons and to build an educational component into the gallery,” says Rosenberg, the gallery’s director. “I also eventually want to attract older patrons as well and help the Contemporary Art Galleries to be understood as having broad reach beyond the immediate University audience.”

He says there are also practical reasons for inviting high school students from next door to become docents: “It’s important for us to develop a high quality, community-wide outreach component. Federal and state granting agencies wish proof of this before supporting an on-campus program, no matter how good the exhibitions.”

Barry Rosenberg, director of the Contemporary Art Galleries, discusses a work of art with student docents from E.O. Smith High School, from left, Amy Chalifoux, Katie Hannafin, and Rebecca Noonan.

Barry Rosenberg, director of the Contemporary Art Galleries, discusses a work of art with student docents from E.O. Smith High School, from left, Amy Chalifoux, Katie Hannafin, and Rebecca Noonan.

Photo by Jordan Bender

Rebecca Parker, one of the graduate assistants working with the student docents, says “We have been brainstorming ways the student docents can make their peers feel more comfortable discussing art, because it can be intimidating walking into a gallery for the first time – at any age.

“I think the other students respond better and share their ideas more freely because their own peers are the ones acting as docents,” she adds.

E.O. Smith art teacher Ann Lorch says she was thrilled when Rosenberg approached her about the new program.

“The new docent program lends a vibrant contemporary art component to our curriculum. It complements our program and brings it up a notch higher from what we could do on our own,” she says.

“Plus it couldn’t be any more convenient. Our students are getting exposed to New York City-caliber exhibits right across the street.”

Rosenberg says he hopes to continue growing the program and to keep inviting different kinds of E.O. Smith classes to tour the gallery’s shows with the student docents.

So far, the students have led classes in art, English, and human behavior through the gallery, and next semester they will bring math classes to see a spring show called Math Counts.

The Libraries exhibit runs through Dec. 16. For more information, see www.contemporaryartgalleries.uconn.edu.

The exhibit also will be the subject of “Looking at Libraries,” a dialogue between artists and librarians on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 3 p.m. in Konover Auditorium. A reception at the gallery will follow the panel.

Panelists include Abelardo Morrell, Erica Baum, and Buzz Spector, artists with works exhibited in the show; Ann Wolpert, director of libraries at MIT; Brinley Franklin, vice provost for university libraries at UConn; and Olu Oguibe, associate professor of art and art history and African American studies.

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