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For Some, a Privilege to Lead Art Tours

May 18, 2006 | by Judy Moore

Evanstonians Edith Eisner, Sandy Singer, Jean Guritz and Steffi Masur enjoy sharing their knowledge and appreciation of visual art each time they guide groups through Northwestern’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.

They are among the 26 volunteer docents at Northwestern’s fine arts museum who host tours for various campus departments, students, schools, local community organizations, art lovers and tourists to the University's Evanston campus.

This spring, they will be among those leading free tours of the exhibition “Jim Dine, some drawings” at 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through June 18.

Since Edith Eisner became a docent in 1989, she has seen the museum blossom from a one-room gallery to a full-fledged 20,000-square-foot, two-story museum that is now nearly three times its original size and the only fine arts museum on the North Shore.

“I have been privileged to be a docent at the Block for 17 years,” said Eisner, a retired high school English teacher who taught at Roycemore School for 29 years and now serves on its board of trustees. “The training the museum has given me has been a wonderful education at the hands of top-flight curators, art historians and scholars from many fields. I have welcomed every moment of my association with this unique cultural institution.”

A 46-year-resident of Evanston, Eisner’s late husband Robert Eisner was professor of economics at Northwestern from 1952 until 1994.

Becoming a Block docent requires a minimum commitment of eight to 10 hours per month. Some Block docents volunteer considerably more hours per month. One also must become a member of the Block Museum and complete six, monthly two-hour training sessions before being allowed to lead a museum tour.

Sandy Singer has the distinction of being the Block’s only male docent at the moment. He has been a docent for four years and usually leads two to three weekend tours during the course of each month.

Volunteering at the Block — one of several places Singer donates his time and energy — fulfills his long-time interest in art and architecture. It is an experience that continues to enrich his life.

“I have gained a lot from other people in my life, so this is giving back,” said the retired sales and marketing executive. “In all honesty, I feel I get more than I give because I learn so much from the Block Museum curators and speakers who come in to lecture to the docents.”

These special speakers include guest curators from Northwestern’s art history department, curators of traveling exhibitions and artists.

Men or women interested in becoming a docent must fill out an application form. Some applicants may be asked to come in for an interview.

Amy Brandolino, director of educational programs for the Block Museum who is in charge of the docent program, seeks individuals who are good communicators. 

“We focus our training on communication and teaching the docents not only to give information, but to create a forum for discussion,” said Brandolino, who was formerly museum educator, adult and docent programs, for the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago.

“We want our docents to make visitors feel comfortable and engaged in the discussion. We encourage them to focus on the visual aspects of the art in front of them so they can experience and appreciate it.”

Other qualities that Brandolino looks for in potential docents include past experience as a docent elsewhere, or past experience in art or teaching. She also seeks individuals who are excited and knowledgeable about art and the Block Museum and who are willing to share that knowledge and excitement with others. Many of the skills necessary to become a docent can be learned, as long as commitment and a willingness to learn are present.

“The Block Museum docents are our cheerleaders and advocates and they need to inspire our audience,” she said. “The Block Museum is a gem on the Evanston campus and our docents do a great job in spreading the word.”

During the six-month in-depth training period taught by Block curators and staff members, as well as Northwestern art faculty, new recruits learn details about the museum, the museum’s permanent collections, proper touring techniques and information about upcoming exhibitions. Docent training classes are offered every four to five years or on an as-needed basis.

Some of the current Block docents are alumni of the University. Others have children who attend or attended Northwestern or just love art. Ten were formerly docents at the Terra Museum.

The Block Museum mounts several exhibitions each academic quarter and organizes numerous lectures, symposia and workshops with artists and scholars. The Block’s expanded permanent collection — consisting primarily of works on paper (prints, drawings and photographs) — distinguishes the museum as an important repository of original works of art.

In addition, the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden features a collection of large bronze sculptures by leading artists that include Jean Arp, Barbara Hepworth, Joán Miró and Henry Moore that were donated to the museum in 1987 by Leigh Block, one of the museum’s inaugural donors and a preeminent collector of modern art.

“The information we disseminate not only enriches their (the public’s) lives, it enriches ours,” said Singer. “There are no drawbacks to being a docent.”

Familiarity with a foreign language can be helpful to a docent.

This winter, Jean Guritz’s knowledge of French came in handy when some of the other docents asked her to translate a few lines of text displayed below or next to the prints featured in exhibitions exploring 19th century French caricatures.

The retired French teacher, who taught at Glenbrook North High School, has been a volunteer docent at the Block Museum for 10 years and usually leads one Block tour per month. She has lived in Evanston for more than three decades.

“The docent program draws people who like museums,” she said. “Being a docent is a unique opportunity to meet interesting people through the tours and through the staff of the museum. The programs and the exhibitions are masterfully done. You always learn something new. For me, it is another kind of school, which I like.”

Guritz said some people visit the Block because they are drawn by a certain exhibition while others stop in prior to attending a concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, located directly east of the Block Museum, or a stage production at the University’s Ethel M. Barber Theatre or Josephine Louis Theatre, located directly south of the museum.

“Because of the training we have, docents can point out highlights to visitors with a limited amount of time,” said Guritz.

Steffi Masur, who has led Block tours for more than a decade, has introduced a number of art enthusiasts to the benefits of museum membership. She also serves with Eisner, Singer and Guritz on the Block Steering Committee, an advisory group to Brandolino.

“We have supervised the new docents in practice tours,” said the former medical librarian, who has resided in Evanston since 1954.

Being a Block Museum docent has its perks. Among the benefits are invitations to all exhibition openings, lectures, gallery talks, symposia and special film events; passes to Block Cinema screenings and private off-campus art-related tours, as well as a 15 percent discount on purchases made in Block in Print, the museum’s main floor gift shop. And docents also may participate in Docent Continuing Education, an enrichment program that includes lectures, field trips, artist demonstrations and visits to public and private art collections. Block also holds a spring awards and appreciation party.

“Occasionally, if there is room, Block docents may attend daytime alumnae continuing education courses — that require a fee — for free — to get that extra layer of education,” added Brandolino.

“What makes being a docent at the Block Museum so interesting is that you don’t do the same thing year in and year out,” said Eisner. “It is a form of continuing education or learning in retirement which is attractive to people who want to keep active intellectually and mentally. It taps into my resources as a teacher plus my interest in teaching and learning. The Block Museum is an exciting place to be associated with. After all these years, I still find myself recruiting other docents.”

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For group or school tours, or for more information about the docent program, call (847) 491-4852 or go to www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/visit/guided-tours.html.

For information regarding exhibitions, programs, Block Cinema classic and contemporary film screenings, membership or location, call (847) 491-4000, or go to www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.

Topics: Campus Life