The Arts

Student docents lead visitors at Contemporary Art Museum

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJanuary 11, 2014 

  • Meet the docents

    The next time CAM’s student docents are scheduled to be on the job is during First Friday Gallery Walk festivities on Feb. 7, working the N.C. Arts Council Fellowship Exhibition.

    Info: 919-513-0946 or

— Smiling brightly, the young woman approached a group of First Friday visitors in the main gallery of downtown Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum. Drawing herself up to her full height, she introduced herself.

“Hello,” she said in a voice brimming with energetic confidence, “my name is Jordyn Brautman. I’m in the fifth grade at Brooks Magnet Elementary School and I’ll be your docent tonight. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.”

Continuing, Jordyn drew her viewers’ attention to “49 States,” a set of pictures that is part of the museum’s “Surveying the Terrain” exhibit (which closes Monday). Working with Google Street View, artist Matthew Jensen compiled photographs of scenes so generic that it’s impossible to identify most of the states shown – enhancing the overall sameness by using a flash of sunlight as a recurring image in each.

Jordyn took questions about individual pictures, referring to a cheat sheet to point out states including North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

“Hawaii is missing because when this was done in 2008, there were not yet Google Street View pictures from there,” she said.

Told she was doing a great job of anticipating questions from the audience, Jordyn laughed.

Meanwhile, her fellow Brooks fifth-grader Bran Poster was downstairs at CAM and also living up to the “ASK ME” emblazoned across the back of his docent’s T-shirt. Standing before Vik Muniz’s “Mappa del Mondo,” he explained it in very grown-up tones.

“It depicts the world, although it’s out of date because it has Communist Russia,” he said. “Vik Muniz loves to use interesting materials, and this is dried paint pigment even though I thought it was carpet when I first saw it. I love geography and history, and this picture is a representation of my love for that.”

“Bran, we’re very impressed,” one woman said while checking his name tag. “What was your last name again? I’m gonna e-mail your teacher. You were great.”

Kids learn a lot

CAM has had a student-docent program since 2011, when it was launched by the museum’s former curator of education Nicole Welch (who is now at N.C. State’s College of Design). The program employs several dozen students at a time from local schools including Brooks, Exploris Middle School and Moore Square Middle School.

For museum patrons, student docents are an appealing alternative to reading a program or wall signs. For the kids, it’s good training for how to communicate.

During their three-month hitch, students show up several times a month to serve as museum guides for events including First Friday Gallery Walk and show openings. Along with T-shirts and sketchbooks, CAM staffers provide a modicum of training in art appreciation and public speaking.

The rest is up to the students, who study and rehearse how to describe and explain things. They have to write an application essay to get into the program, and there’s no payment or class credit involved. But being a student docent does carry a certain amount of cachet.

“They learn a lot by us teaching them how to talk about art from a public-speaking role,” said CAM executive director Gab Smith. “We cover eye contact, posture, voice modulation, how to express exuberance and not be afraid of their own excitement. We really focus on building confidence.”

California artist David Maisel encountered the student docents last October, when he was at CAM for the opening of “Surveying the Terrain.” Watching the kids describe the brightly colored satellite pictures of environmental degradation from his “Black Maps” series, Maisel pronounced them “almost heartbreakingly wonderful.”

“I’ve never seen that in any exhibition I’ve participated in or visited,” Maisel said. “Their usefulness and engagement and minds being so open, that was really exceptional. I thought it really spoke to the museum’s mission because it’s the next generation. They were so enthusiastic to talk to everybody, wearing their ‘ASK ME’ T-shirts. They really brought it to another level.”

‘A lot of meaning’

Something else the kids get out of the docent program is a heightened sense of art appreciation.

Brooks fifth-grader Isabel Moran was stationed at Doug Rickard’s “A New American Picture,” a series depicting some of America’s grimmest slums in brightly colored but grainy pictures culled from Google Street View.

“I think these are very pretty and they have a lot of meaning, way more than the others,” she said when asked why she’d selected these pictures for her docent’s shift. “I always liked art a lot, but I didn’t know just how much meaning it could have until I started doing this. I think these pictures show that poverty and inequality exist, and that America needs to be changed.”

For some, that enhanced appreciation will inspire their own art. Brooks fifth-grader Olivia Knight enthused about her love for the docent program while standing by the blindingly bright white light of Alfredo Jaar’s “Lament of the Images.”

“Oh, I love this,” Olivia said. “I’ve learned so much. I had no idea this place existed until I signed up. It said, ‘If you love art, sign up, it will be a delight.’ I knew it was the thing for me. I paint, too. I have a painting of a bluebird eating from a bowl of fruit in my grandparents’ living room.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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