Thursday, February 2, 2012

Museum Hand - Day 26

Walk: Neighborhood errands
Distance: 3 miles

When I go to museums, I put the sticker they want you to wear on the back of my hand. Like many museum goers I've learned the hard way from gooey stains on suede jackets and leather purses or a small area of pilled fabric on silk or wool.

Lately I've had a sticker on my hand five days out of seven as I've supported my docent training friends on their qualifying tours for graduation from the second semester. They have two more semesters together (basically a year with summer off) and then beginning next February they will have another year of trainings in optional areas/modules like furniture and porcelain. Altogether it is a three year process, and then when they are docents they must commit to 24 annual tours or be dropped from the program.

If you an art lover, and especially if you love to teach, there is a tremendous amount to be gained from the docent program/being a docent. Certainly watching my friends give their tours and witnessing their growth, I couldn't help feeling conflicted about having dropped out of the training myself. It was a difficult decision because art is infinitely fascinating in the myriad things it touches, and I am very fond of my fellow trainees so miss continuing together.

But I was not alone in leaving the training; it began with 150 people, and now they are down to 80. When the next semester begins, I imagine there will be more people who have resigned. And to lose almost 50% in the first year says more to me about the training than about the trainees, all of whom are extremely bright and have tremendous life and work experience. Ie, they are not flakes.

One problem with the training is 'false advertising.' In the initial interviews and the written acceptance letter they tell trainees they will work 'approximately 4 hours per week' doing writing and research past the 4 hours of weekly lectures and seminar/tour training. In fact, there is no way anybody can get their homework done in less than 20 hours on top of the '4 hours' of work at the museum which usually extends to 5 hours or more and doesn't include commute time. Then during the times for qualifying tours (mini tour in the middle of the semester and final tour at the end) there are numerous additional trips to the museum to select and 'commune' with the art works you will be presenting as well to make sure they are even up on the walls and aren't on loan or somewhere else in the museum to make room for a rotating show. Altogether then, the training takes at least 25 hours (plus travel time) on a weekly basis growing to perhaps 40 hours as the trainees prepare their tours.

Because they've been told going in they will be working approximately 8 hours a week, the actual work load is an alarming shock to many, many people who are slotting the training into their marriages, mothering, friendships, community obligations, travel, perhaps a job. Ie, they have a Life. But when the training begins, things flip flop. The training is the life and everything else gets slotted in. It really can't be done, so immediately people become anxious, overtired, stressed. When they see the realities, many drop out in the first few weeks. Basically they have been lied to.

Thus is revealed the dismissive, abusive self-importance that permeates the whole program. Instead of going out of their way to thank and honor people who are willing to donate their time, energies, talents to the museum, the docent program lords itself over them. If, for instance, people articulate their (and their spouses and children's etc) shock and displeasure at having been told one thing and then simply expected to do another, first they usually have no one to talk to. There is No system for grievances to be discussed or worked out; there is no suggestion box. So, in a defensive, 'bad person' way you find somebody above you, pathetically have your say:

Trainee: Errr, you said I'd be working 6 hours.
Docent: We did?
Trainee: Yes, it is in writing. I just don't have any time for my family and they are really upset.
Docent: Oh.

End of discussion. The trainee is left to feel the mistake is theirs and then decides whether to reorganize their life and stay or to go. It is a fraught decision because usually the trainee wants to be a docent - and more importantly has a great deal to contribute to the museum and its visitors - and if it had been at the manageable level promised, being a docent would have been a wonderful addition to their life.

But, no, you're in the system now - or not. It goes on: imperiousness, infantilizing, arbitrary last minute schedules, being dictated to with no recourse. 'For your own good,' 'Because we just really want you to be a good docent,' you are clocked with a stop watch when you give your presentations, you are criticized for looking sometimes toward the painting as you talk, told how to dress as if you've never been to a museum or the clothes you're wearing aren't just fine, critiqued unmercifully on what you didn't include in your 3 minutes, on it goes. Really it is appalling - and your only recourse is to stay or go.

At the end if you stay there are of course many rewards - the main ones being the intimate knowledge of all the art at the museum and the deep friendships/comradery. Being a docent is literally a way of life. But is there time to see each other outside the museum? Do you only want to know the art of your museum or have your art education extend beyond those pieces? Do you want the museum to be so much a part of your life and psyche? Do you want to plan your life around the museum? Is there any future for your docent training beyond the particular museum? Aren't the politics/ potential for abuse endless in the entrenched system? The questions go on and on. Some people easily deal with or leap over them. I am not such a person; in fact, it's more my way to want to re-vamp the whole system. So ultimately, especially after spending ten years as a professional with my hand in many aspects of the art world, I decided to let the questions go unanswered and use my life to live other questions.

Hand with Sticker (2012, paper and adhesive on flesh)

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