Ming Thompson ’04 leads a double life. After spending hours studying floor plans and models for her classes, Thompson heads to the Yale University Art Gallery, where she becomes the instructor. Thompson is an art gallery guide.
Over 40 Yale students double as art gallery guides in their free time. But while they all share an interest in art, the majority of the guides are not art history majors.
Luke Habberstad ’03, head coordinator for the student guide program that began in 1998, is a history major who said it is more important to have enthusiasm for art than knowledge about the pieces in order to be a guide.
“I didn’t see myself as an ‘art person’ until I became a guide,” Habberstad said.
Ellen Alvord, associate curator of academic initiatives at the gallery, is impressed with the varied backgrounds of the guides.
“I think that Yale students in general are renaissance people,” Alvord said. “[The guides] are amazing. They have so many great ideas.”
Many of the student guides have unique methods for provoking an audience’s response.
Habberstad’s tour includes a stop at “The Answer is No,” by Kay Sage, where he asks his group, “What’s the question?”
Tova Friedman ’03 said she likes to ask people whether they think an iBook laptop computer, which is on display in the decorative arts wing of the gallery, belongs in the museum.
Friedman recently used her experience as a gallery tour guide to institute a similar program at the Yale Center for British Art. There are currently 15 students training to become British Art Center guides, said Linda Friedlaender, curator of education at the British Art Center.
“It just sort of took on a life of its own,” Friedlaender said.
At both the art gallery and the British Art Center, guides apply for their positions in the spring, interview with the current guides, and then receive extensive training in the fall. Compared to the fledgling British Art Center gallery guide program, the art gallery’s most recent application process prompted 52 applicants seeking 20 available positions, Alvord said.
While guides at the art gallery have two two-hour training sessions each week, guides at the British Art Center have one weekly two-hour session in which they meet with experts in the arts to learn more about the pieces on display and about art in general. Friedlaender said the training sessions also help guides learn the philosophy behind the collection itself and gain insight into its presentation.
During the training programs, the guides choose the paintings they wish to explain during their tour and develop a theme that connects them.
But improving their knowledge about artwork is not the only concern for the gallery guides.
Student guides give tours to groups of all ages — from fellow undergraduates to local school groups to senior citizens. Several guides said the diverse views on art they have encountered have proven to be one of the most interesting parts of the program for them.
“It’s interesting to deal with people who come to the gallery with all different kinds of perspectives,” Thompson said.
The new British Art Center gallery guides gave their first tours in groups of two or three during Parents’ Weekend.
Jennifer Kowitt ’04, who is training in the British Art Center program, said her art history class with professor Timothy Barringer was a major reason she chose to become a guide.
“I was fascinated to learn how much you can learn about British history and the people who are in these paintings,” Kowitt said.
Will Harper ’05, who is training to be a guide at both galleries, said his interest was sparked because he works in the education department at the art gallery and has had the opportunity to see what previous guides had done.
“[Being a guide,] you get to see the museum from the outside in,” he said.
Thompson said that while she originally became a gallery guide in order to get to know more about the collection, being a gallery guide served as a “gateway” to becoming involved with other programs run by the gallery.
Thompson is now an active participant in Adventures in Art, a program that goes to New Haven public schools to teach students about a particular type of art and help them create their own. Her most recent group worked with Egyptian art, learning about Egyptians depictions of the body, hieroglyphics, and masks and hats. At the program’s conclusion, the group visited the gallery to see the museum’s collection.
The art galleries at Yale have a dual mission of serving the New Haven community and the Yale student body, Habberstad said. While programs like Adventures in Art achieve their civic goal, the guides hope their program will draw more Yale undergraduates into the galleries.
“Yalies aren’t really aware of what’s in [the British Art Center],” Kowitt said. “Hopefully with this program more people will come.”