by Liza Roberts
On the first Friday of any given month, when Raleigh’s galleries and museums are all open late, art lovers head out to see the latest shows and mingle with their peers.
When they walk under the cantilevered roofline of CAM Raleigh’s award-winning building in the warehouse district, they’re there to see shows that make national headlines, like the current Surveying the Terrain, recently covered in the Wall Street Journal and Wired.
So they might be surprised when the docent who offers to answer questions (about the installation by world-renowned artist Maya Lin, for instance) is 12 years old. And so are the rest of them: middle schoolers, all.
Sporting black CAM T-shirts with “Ask Me” on the back, these kids rove the gallery floors, clipboards in hand, knowledge at the ready. They can tell you about the artists, their intent, process, and the particulars of each work. They don’t stammer or look at the ground. These kids are eager to talk.
Exhibiting artists love it.
“The young docents were the highlight of the two opening events,” says California photographer David Maisel, whose brightly colored aerial photographs of environmentally impacted mines, forests and water reclamation sites fill one wall of the exhibit. “They were effective and disarming.”
That’s the idea, says Gab Smith, the museum’s executive director. “I think it re-invigorates a sense of wonder.” It also frees up visitors who might otherwise be intimidated in museum setting, she says, to wonder aloud, to converse.
“When kids talk,” especially in an urbane setting like this one, “grownups listen,” says Marjorie Hodges, director of the museum’s Contemporary Art Foundation.
But getting adults to actually pay attention – to learn about the art – is only one part of the goal. The other, bigger purpose is to educate the kids. Not just about art, but about themselves. The docent program is a rigorous one. Accepted on the basis of an essay about why they’re interested in art and what they’d bring to the program, the kids then spend several weeks preparing for each exhibit’s opening night.
Smith coaches them in public speaking. She tells them not to end their sentences like a question, but to drop their tone. To make a statement. She puts them on stage, makes them practice, and tells them they’re great. She high-fives at every opportunity. And then she lets them pick an exhibiting artist to learn about, so they can speak about that person with authority. The night of the show, they meet that artist.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to speak to people and be confident,” says Jacqueline Kirk, 12, a seventh grader at Exploris Middle School. “It’s the most amazing thing to have a grownup ask you a question, and have them listen to us.” The kids’ parents and teachers say the experience is transformative.
“It’s a huge confidence boost,” says Sonja McKay, a seventh-grade teacher at Exploris. “In many cases, it has really brought these kids to life. And that carries over into the classroom.”
Her student Ella Booker, 12, says she used to be “a little bit shy talking to new people,” but the program has cured her of that. “I’ve learned about public speaking and how art can be anything – a satellite image to a sculpture to a painting.”
It’s in those kinds of conversations – between docents and visitors about how a satellite photo can be art, for instance – that the program fulfills its promise, Smith says.
Because in an instance like that, the museum is breaking down barriers, engaging both the children and the visiting public with art in a new way, and with one another. And it’s turning the museum into a broader community resource.
“We don’t want to just be a museum within these four walls,” Hodges says. “We want to be relevant. We want to show world-class art, and we want to serve the broader community.”
She and Smith are working on new ways to achieve that, including the brainstorm-stage “CAM to go” program. The idea is to package art supplies and project suggestions in individual boxes so kids in after-school programs like the ones at Boys & Girls Clubs can make their own art without having to come downtown.
“We need to meet the community where it is,” Hodges says. “We need to take it to them.”
While Smith and Hodges seek funding for this and other education and outreach projects, CAM is staying busy with its docents. One new docent job is to write and record the exhibit’s guided tour that visitors can dial up on their cell phones as they walk the museum floor.
“People stop, when they hear them: ‘Who is this child? I’ve got to listen.’ So they listen. And they get it.”