As the Art Institute’s Associate Director of Volunteer Programs, Michael Mitchell manages hundreds of volunteers who do everything from manning the 15 information desks across the museum to helping out with family programs in the Ryan Learning Center to working behind the scenes in curatorial departments on research and translation. He recently spoke with our Member Magazine about the role that volunteers play and how the program has evolved since the mid-1970s.
Volunteer Programs was developed at the museum over 40 years ago. Could you tell us a bit about the program’s start?
The program was started with three volunteers: Evie Barriger, Josie Strauss, and Olga Balch (who is still with the program!). They answered questions at an information desk at Michigan Avenue. When the museum needed more volunteers to staff the phones and answer questions during major exhibitions, those numbers grew. It was so successful that a permanent program was created.
What is the number one question that volunteers get?
Each station has different questions, but it ranges from “Where is the bathroom?” (an important question when you have been waiting in line) to where the icons of the collection are located. This past summer we got a lot of Ferris Bueller questions because of the 30th anniversary of the film.
What is the oddest question a volunteer has received?
There are a lot: “Do you have any dinosaurs?”; “Where is the Mona Lisa?”; and “How much is all this worth?”
Which qualities make a volunteer especially valuable?
A love of the museum, art, and people, and also appreciation of the museum’s legacy and their place in that legacy. Reliability is very important. Our volunteers are an essential part of our operation, and without them, we can’t function.
Does recruiting play a part in securing new volunteers?
Volunteers who are happy and challenged by their work are our recruiters. We also have a reputation as a well-run program with a welcoming environment, so that helps too. But we do recruit when we have a specific need. For example, we recently scouted Mandarin-speaking students to work as greeters to help us communicate with our Chinese visitors.
How do you approach training? How long does it take to complete training?
Our public contact training is done over two half days of training and three mentoring sessions. However, since the museum and the collection is constantly changing, we encourage our volunteers to devote time to continuing education by walking the galleries on their own, taking an audio tour, and taking advantage of the great gallery tours, talks, and lectures that the museum offers.
What do you see as the future of Volunteer Programs?
We will continue to build on our strengths, fulfilling departments’ volunteer needs and helping our visitors find their way through the museum. We will also become more diverse in both the types of volunteers we have and the ways they support the museum. For example, we need people interested in caring for Amazon parrots for the Hélio Oiticica exhibition this winter—if you know of anyone!
12 hours 37 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago COMING SOON—Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960–75
The short-lived Tokyo magazine Provoke is now recognized as a major achievement in world photography of the last 50 years. A major international traveling show, which has Chicago as its only North American venue, this exhibition is the first survey of postwar Japanese art to be organized at the Art Institute and draws heavily on the the museum’s collection—more than 60% of the over 200 items on display belong to the Art Institute.
OPENING JANUARY 28—http://bit.ly/2jMlnUx
15 hours 49 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago NOW ON VIEW—The Italian–born American artist Josef Stella revisited his native Italy in 1922, where he became fascinated by Renaissance painting. Drawing inspiration from Sandro Botticelli, Stella began to produce decorative, detailed, symbolic compositions, such as A Vision (seen here). Stella was enthralled by the tropical plants he observed at the Bronx Botanical Garden in New York, and he imagined an iconic woman growing out of the earth like the towering flowers on either side of her.
The French–born American artist Gaston Lachaise found his own iconic inspiration for the sculpture, Woman (Elevation), in Isabel Dutaud Nagle, whom he later married, telling her, “I want to create a miracle with it… as great as you.” This sculpture represents Lachaise’s first full-scale expression of the idealized female form that would come to dominate his art. Modernists like Lachaise believed preclassical art possessed a primitive vitality absent from later art forms.
See Josef Stella’s A Vision (1925/26) and Gaston Lachaise’s Woman (Elevation) (1912–15; cast 1927)—on view in Gallery 271.
1 day 12 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago NOW OPEN—Rodney McMillian: a great society
Our latest exhibition in the Modern Wing represents the last decade of the artist’s work in video. Grappling with the complexities of class, race, and place in America, Rodney McMillian employs elements of performance, public speaking, oral history—and his interest in the science fiction genre—to expose the social and psychological consequences of economic inequality, endemic racism, and the failed promise of freedom and prosperity for all of its citizens. While McMillian's work engages the often stark realities of history and contemporary culture, it is motivated by the potential for alternative realities and future transformation.
See Rodney McMillian: a great society on view in the Modern Wing through March 26.