Today the Art Institute of Chicago’s docent corps officially commemorates its 50th anniversary, making it one of the longest running programs in the museum’s 130-year history.
From the beginning, the goal of the docent corps has been to teach young people to look at art and connect what they see to their everyday experiences. The current 150 docents receive ongoing education about the museum’s permanent collection and special exhibitions, educational theory, and gallery teaching strategies. Over the last 50 years, they have introduced hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to the wonders of art and other cultures, and they continue to do so today.
In celebration of this occasion, we asked a current docent to expand on the work they do and the impact that they have. Below, Gigi Vaffis, docent of eight years, talks about some of her most memorable experiences.
It can start with a smile, an interested eyebrow raise, a head nod, or just a shift from foot to foot. It’s the point in your tour when you’ve made a connection between the work of art and a member of your group. It’s the point where you know you’re getting through.
I’m one of the lucky folks that call herself a ‘docent’ at the Art Institute of Chicago. Through rain, snow, sleet, and hail we take our trains, ride our buses, and get in our car pools to head to the museum every day of the week to give student and adult tours.
To me the most rewarding part of being a docent is the connections I make with my audience. An ‘aha!’ moment—as I like to call it—is derived from infinite opportunities. It may be from something I’ve learned from them or visa versa. Or, better yet, something we’ve both gleaned from discussions amongst the larger group.
There are two aha experiences in particular that I’ll always remember. One involved a lovely group of 2nd graders from Chicago’s South Side. These giggly, young girls were all pressed and shiny in their school uniforms. They met every painting with curiosity, joy, wonder, and a little bit of “I could do that.” They stole my heart. As we discovered Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving using our five senses, one student said it reminded her of a song they had learned in music class about Kwanzaa; the sights, smells, and comforts of a bountiful harvest. And then under the towering ceiling of the American galleries, this impish seven-year-old with perfect pitch began to sing. Within seconds the entire group broke into a song as endearing as the spirit of Doris Lee’s painting.
The second aha moment occurred during a tour I felt privileged to give. It was with a group of highly autistic wheelchair bound students, ages 8 to 16. I was told connections could come in variety of ways so I worked for hours putting together different activities to engage this group. When the tour started I was as nervous as the children. They had never been to a museum before, or even a space as large as the Art Institute. My goal was to make the tour feel “cozy.” To secure a nook with a work of art and help the children become ‘one’ with it. We were in a quiet, sunny, south-facing corner of the Modern Wing, viewing Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man. My discussion didn’t hold much of the children’s interest so we immediately started creating our own ‘walking man’ sculptures out of aluminum foil. We talked about movement and moved our bodies as best we could. I noticed that a quiet 14-year-old girl seemed immensely perplexed. I was concerned that I was confusing her or, even worse, boring her. So together, we completed her sculpture. I gently walked her sculpture up her arm to express movement. After a moment she took the miniature sculpture, held it for a while, and then slowly walked it up my arm.
And then it happened. This young lady with the perplexed look on her face looked into my eyes, let her face relax, and smiled.