Carlene Van Voorhies came to an epiphany about docents while touring the Musee du Louvre in Paris. An English-speaking docent took her group past the world-famous Mona Lisa to stand before the Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese. She had ignored it on prior visits, but now she was mesmerized.
“This painting takes up an entire wall; the symbolism wowed me, especially after learning what the docent had to say,” recalls Carlene, who managed outpatient medical centers for Henry Ford Health System before retirement. “I decided then to become a docent, to help others to feel fulfilled by art.”
For the last six years, the world-traveling art lover from Bloomfield Township leads a variety of tours at the Detroit Institute of Arts and lectures at colleges, libraries and community centers about the art institute’s extensive collection.
“We’re the performance artists of the museum, the people that bring art to life,” Carlene says. One of her favorite pieces is the Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in oil during the 16th century. She says the detail is so rich, few notice it is a commentary on the Spanish rule of Flanders.
Docents (a totally volunteer activity) currently number 142, with 40 retired people who help in a pinch. The DIA takes applications every other year and training takes almost a full year to learn all of the collections, galleries and ancillary services. There’s even homework after every class. Most docents conduct over 50 tours a year, with some leading close to 100. At least two docents are stationed daily at the Rivera Court, where Diego Rivera’s 360-degree fresco ode to the auto industry reigns supreme.
All told, the DIA has 669 volunteers who contribute 62,711 hours a year to the museum, according to a spokesperson. This saves taxpayers and the museum over $1.5 million in labor costs.
“We always need more volunteers,” says Christine Mark, manager of volunteer programs. Since a regional millage passed in August 2012 giving free general admission to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, attendance has surged from 459,031 people in fiscal year 2011-12 to 638,733 in 2014-15. Crowds continue to grow with enhanced programming and community outreach, often conducted by docents.
Docents take turns leading hour-long senior tours on the first and fifth Thursday of each month. They take visitors on Friday evening tours at 6 p.m. before the weekly, live music in Rivera Court begins. And they organize tours every day the museum is open. Special gallery teachers lead the tours for school children.
“We’re getting people in our tour groups that haven’t been south of Eight Mile in 40 years,” says Susan Moiseev, a former 45th District Court judge, now a docent. “People tell me they are paying up to $200 in extra taxes and they want to get their money’s worth out of the DIA.”
Leading seniors can be daunting. Many come by buses provided by the DIA but abilities vary widely. One week Susan leads a group with limited mobility. They have wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and walkers. She plans a route on one floor and assesses how many stops people will take. Other days she has an agile group willing to climb stairs and explore every nook and cranny.
“My favorite gallery to showcase is the African American artists, especially the massive work by Kehinde Wiley,” Susan says. Wiley paints modern men in regal, Renaissance-era poses. She also loves the Egyptian section, because groups delight in seeing the mummies and shriek at jars containing animal heads.
Susan’s love of art was nurtured by an art history course at the University of Michigan. She might have majored in art or library science but chose a career in law, handling landlord-tenant, civil cases, felonies and preliminary exams. Now she exercises her authority by telling people they can’t chew gum or touch the art.
No one goes to jail on her watch as they did when she served on the bench from 1986 to 2013. Instead, people broaden their horizons.
“Every week I’m able to share my love of the DIA and art with people who know little about it. The museum has been a part of my life since I attended Cass Tech High School. It has always been a wonderful place to spend time,” Susan says.
Docents also go out to the community to deliver lectures whenever invited. Among the topics the museum offers for its program, “Behind the Seen,” are the History of the DIA, Essential Works in the Permanent Collection, Women Artists, Love, Museum Mysteries, Seeking the Sacred, Picturing Music, In the Garden, In Our Own Voice: African American Artists, and many more.
The community lectures and increased tour schedule fits well inside the strategic plan initiated by Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the museum since fall 2015. In a November newsletter to museum members he wrote: “Our vision is that of a town square, a point of reference, a gathering place where all are included and welcomed. We are more than an art collection; we are more than a museum. We aspire to become a vital, useful institution for everyone for the betterment of our society.”
Upcoming exhibits at the DIA
- Detroit After Dark – Photos from the DIA Collection – through April 23, 2017
- Bitter/Sweet, Coffee, Tea & Chocolate – through March 5, 2017
- The Edible Monument – The Art of Food for Festivals – December 16 – April 6, 2017