Art Kids on the Block

Who are these students we call guides?
Who are these students we call guides? // Karen Tian

As the blue construction tarps were lifted off of the Yale University Art Gallery this December, across the street the Yale Center for British Art revealed a new face, too. A photo of its 25 student guides laughing with their arms in the air invites pedestrians into the steely building designed by Louis I. Kahn. (The serious one is on their website.)

This scene of the neighboring galleries reflects their respective images in the Yale community. The YCBA program actively maintains a strong presence among undergraduates, while the YUAG program has been known more by word of mouth.

As the YUAG leaps into its new future as an expanded museum that has received more attention, a light is cast on its often conspicuous student guide program, and its more visible cousin on the same block.

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Although the YCBA guide program is more well-known today, the YUAG program was established first.

The YUAG Gallery Guide Program began in 1998. Fusing the gallery’s missions to engage students with the collection and to educate the community, the Gallery Guide Program focuses on training undergraduates to lead tours of the art gallery for adult groups. The goal is to “teach students how to teach,” YUAG Museum Educator Elizabeth Manekin said, and to respond to the student demand to learn about art by engaging with original works themselves.

YCBA Curator of Education Linda Friedlaender said she admired the YUAG student guide program so much that she started one at the YCBA in 2002.

Their shared origins shed light on their common goal to educate students of all academic backgrounds on art, culture, museum research and presentational skills in a non-classroom setting. Both also wanted the student tours to attract both the Yale and New Haven community to engage with the museums.

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On every Friday afternoon since she’s been at Yale, Hannah Flato ’14 has gone to a class outside her schedule.

The YCBA program is structured like a seminar. The meetings cover everything from the British collection, tour techniques, audience engagement and department visits, depending on the week, Friedlaender said. Each week, all the YCBA guides gather together in the YCBA’s docent room, a small seminar room with a long table. Although Friedlaender has a lesson for every session, she is willing to make everything from art events to Yale news into a “learning conversation,” Flato said.

The YCBA program is “so much more than giving a tour,” Flato said. Each guide engages with the British collection and finds paintings that speak to them, and construct their personalized tours through research and collaboration with curators. Current tours include “Postcards from Paradise: British Paintings of Foreign Places,” “The Painted Cave,” “Artistic Anesthesia” and “Female Strength and Fragility.”

Since 2002, the YCBA program has expanded in size and has hosted more opportunities for the student guides. The Art Club allows student guides to host public events such as gingerbread house-making and T-shirt design twice per semester to engage the community with the gallery. (On Friday, the YCBA will be hosting a high tea where community members can come make T-shirts and drink tea.) After their first year, four to five student guides can participate in Art-in-Focus, which allows them to work closely with curators to put together an original exhibition. The current group is creating an exhibit on St. Ives, a community of artists in England who produced abstract art after World War II, Flato said.

These opportunities have led the YCBA guides to develop more personal relationships and professional mentorship, with Friedlaender able to connect students to internships, Friedlaender said. The YCBA guides can also participate in other YCBA programs, such as “Exploring Artism,” which is a free family program for children on the autism spectrum.

The YUAG program also works as a gateway to other opportunities, such as the Highlights Tour program that teaches guides how to give a comprehensive tour of the whole collection. However, these opportunities are not part of the student guide program itself. Like the YCBA, the YUAG program is also like a class, but specifically focused on the instruction of guides in giving and researching tours. The YUAG requires only first-year trainees to attend meetings, twice per week in the fall and once a week in the spring. Trainees spend one year researching art, engaging with the museum and learning tour techniques, Manekin said. Research includes not only meeting with curators and immersing oneself in the collection, but also writing papers on four artworks on their personalized tours. Current tours include “Back to Basics: Understanding Art through Line, Shape and Color,” “Depicting Infinity,” “Myth-Making” and “Famous Last Words: Modern Art as Philosophical Coda.” After completing the training, the student guides return in their following years to give their unique tours a few times per semester, but do not come to regular meetings as in their first year, Manekin said. Indeed, to build communication between older and younger YUAG guides, the program assigns older mentors to younger mentees and has group events such as field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and pizza parties, Sokoloff said.

The two programs do not engage much with each other, both student guides and Manekin said. Student guides occasionally visit the other gallery for their respective research, Friedlaender said. Twice per year they have semiformals for the student guides and their friends at the galleries, she added.

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The YCBA program has spiked in popularity in the past five years as a result of increased advertising, Friedlaender said. A few years ago, a University-wide mandate asked museums to try involving more students in the Yale galleries, she said. The mandate was the result of years of meetings and committees of the University’s administrators and faculty that culminated in a President’s Office general report on the University. She added that student museum attendance is a nationwide problem at universities.

To respond to the mandate, the YCBA has hosted a booth at the extracurricular bazaar, holds open houses and organizes other public events to recruit undergraduates. This year, the program received 64 applications for six spots, an acceptance rate of 9 percent.

The YCBA program keeps its size to 25 students, as “the guides like it to be a small group in terms of discussion, field trips social events — there’s camaraderie in the smaller size,” Friedlaender said. All the guides meet together to discuss the applications together, and each applicant is interviewed by at least three guides, she said.

The YUAG program is less heavily advertised, YUAG student guides and Manekin said. Word-of-mouth is the primary path of promotion, with student guides sending emails to panlists and telling friends about the program, Manekin said. The program is “competitive enough” and draws enough highly qualified applicants that it does not need to advertise more than it already does, she said. The gallery receives approximately 30–50 applications for 12 spots, a 24–40 percent acceptance rate.

The YUAG and YCBA attract different students. The YUAG assigns work as if it were an academic class, Manekin said. Since sophomores and juniors have stronger time-management skills and clearer personal goals, the YUAG tends to accept older students willing to commit to a training year, she said. Students such as Daniel Roza ’15 saw the requisite research papers as a sign that the YUAG program was “more intense,” and thus found the YCBA program, which requires students to report their research verbally, more approachable for a non-art major. The YCBA’s presence at the extracurricular bazaar makes it more visible to freshmen, Flato said.

The YCBA guides said they see the program as not only an intellectual endeavor, but also a social opportunity. Regular meetings over four years foster a community that lasts throughout a guide’s time at Yale, Kathryn Kaelin ’15 said. Many begin as freshmen, who then evolve over the years together, Roza said.

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The YCBA program has no plans to change, as it has been successful as it stands, Friedlaender said. Although the YUAG has also been successful, its reopening of the extended wings is providing an opportunity for change in the student activity programs. Manekin said the student guides now have a wider range of artwork to choose from for their own tours. With the new resources, the gallery is beginning to brainstorm other programs to involve students, she said.

As the freshly renovated YUAG and the YCBA invigorate their corner of Chapel Street, the student gallery guide program can continue to serve as a way to bring undergraduates and non-Yalies alike to the collections housed in cream-colored stone and matte steel.

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