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Putting Art to Work

Full disclosure: my dream job at the Art Institute would be to give tours full time. I love talking to visitors about art and I love learning the history, context, and secrets about our collection.

Along the same lines, I’m really interested in the different types of tours at the museum: tours of our “big ticket” works, quick lunchtime talks, tours for school kids, tours of the architecture of the Modern Wing, tours about specific works or specific artists, and on and on. So I jumped at the chance to tag along with Jeff Nigro, Director of Adult Programs, on one of the Art and the Workplace tours—The Discerning Eye.

The Discerning Eye is a program for professionals—everyone from nurses to police academy students to managers from US Cellular have gone on the tours—that is designed to help people understand how they respond to visual cues and how various job skills like communication and teamwork can be enhanced by looking at and talking about art. Basically, we’re putting Goya to work. The rules are simple: no pointing and no sentences starting with “obviously” or “clearly.”

I followed Jeff and one of the groups one day recently, initially somewhat skeptical about how the museum’s collection would relate to modern-day office life. I also prepared myself for some awkward silences during the three-hour discussion, but was almost immediately proven wrong.


Our first stop was Frans Snyders’s Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market (above). The question Jeff asked the group was very simple: what’s the first thing you noticed? Answers ranged from the goose to the old man’s shirt to the cat eyes under the table, and the discussion continued for half an hour—an object lesson in dealing with a multitude of view points. No two people had answered the fairly simple question about one painting the same way, and what was self-evident to one was completely absent to another. Sound familiar?


Throughout the rest of the afternoon, the group animatedly discussed power dynamics in terms of a series of Goya paintings (above), dealing with assumptions and race relations as the themes related to a Brancusi sculpture, and how perceptions change over time—brought to the foreground by a Laurent de La Hyre painting.

Who says field trips are just for kids?

Frans Snyders. Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market, 1614. Charles H. and Mary F.S. Worcester Collection.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. El Maragato Threatens Friar Pedro de Zaldivia with His Gun, Friar Pedro offers shoes to El Maragato and Prepares to Push Aside His Gun, Friar Pedro Wrests the Gun from El Maragato, Friar Pedro Clubs El Maragato with the Butt of the Gun, Friar Pedro Shoots El Maragato as His Horse Runs Off, Friar Pedro Binds El Maragato with a Rope. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

Tags: Education