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Storm King Art Center

The Storm King Art Center, in Mountainville, New York, is considered among the pre-eminent sculpture park museums in America. Its facilities consist of 500 acres of manicured lawns, terraced fields, and woodlands. On approximately 1/2 of the property, over 120 sculptures — by many large scale — by most of this century’s leading artists are installed. Of the 30 docents on our roster, 26 actively tour Our docents employ a combination of inquiry and lecture techniques. No standard scripts are ever used. Docents are recruited through ads and press releases placed periodically in local publications, including area newspapers and magazines.

Those volunteers interested in becoming docents at the Storm King Art Center go through a 14-week training session that is conducted by the curator ot education, outside consultants who are specialists in various fields, and artists. The 14- week training session, which meets once a week for 2 to 2- 1/2 hours, consists of formal lectures, group discussions, field trips, research projects, and guest presentations covering a wide range of topics including the history of modern sculpture; the careers/range of works by some of the most important artists in our collection; public speaking techniques; methods of learning in a museum setting; touring techniques including how to tour in the out-of-doors.

Primarily, docents at the Storm King Art Center are individuals who are interested in post-1945 sculpture — most of which is large-scale and abstract. They are also people interested in the environment and landscape since all tours are given outside in the sculpture park, which is surrounded by some of the most spectacular views that the Hudson Highlands have to offer Docents are intrigued with context — examining how the art and the landscape are intertwined.

Docent performance at the Storm King Art Center is evaluated. For beginning docents, evaluation takes place at the end of the training session. Individuals are required to give a test tour to the curator of education and other staff members. If the tour is deemed acceptable, they graduate to the status of senior docent and begin touring the public. Senior docents are evaluated once yearly. They also conduct a test tour, which is evaluated by the curator of education and an outside consultant. Docents do use themes for their tours, which are developed by the docent in consultation with the curator of education. Among the successful themes are: “Art in the Environment,” “Materials and Methods of Sculpture,” and “Women Artists in the Storm King Collection.”

Part of the mission of Storm King Art Center is to “provide formal educational programs and to conduct, foster, and publish fundamental research in the field of modern and contemporary art, with special attention to the work of artists executing large sculpture of the kind on which the Art Center had focused.” Given this fact, education plays a major role in the organizations’ programming. Of the 40,000 visitors that come seasonally, approximately 1/2 participate in some type of public programming.

During the 7-1/2 month period when we are open to the public (April 1 to November 16), approximately 10,500 visitors take a guided tour Tours for the general public are offered daily and on the weekends. Walk-in tours either highlight the collection or focus on “special topics” that hone in on specific parts of our collection or explore certain themes. In addition, we provide tours in German, Spanish, French, and Italian. School programs are developed by a committee that consists of the curator of education and other staff, along with docent corps representatives. School programs include pre-visit lectures and activities given by the education department staff; on site projects; teacher training workshops, and a yearly conference for elementary, middle, and high school art teachers from the three surrounding counties.

The strength of our docent program is our tour guides, who are highly motivated and dedicated. They have a strong interest in post- 1945 sculpture and its relationship to the landscape, and a desire to share this interest and knowledge with others. The challenges that our docent program face are how to make our collection of mostly large, abstract sculptures accessible to the general visitor who comes with little or no knowledge of the history of modern sculpture, and how to deal with the challenges of touring groups in a setting that is not regular or controlled, but is in the outdoors.

Since docents only tour the public in our “green galleries” (the museum building is not included on any tours), they must be prepared to respond to a host of problems/situations that docents in “traditional” museums do not. For instance:

What do you do when your tour group of school children is caught in the middle of an open field in an isolated summer storm?

How do you handle the terrible yearly invasion of black flies that appear every May for 2 to 3 weeks?

What do you do when dead locusts are dropping from the trees around you while you are giving a tour?

How do you deal with children in school groups that would rather run through the sprinklers than take your tour?

When the lawn sprinklers are on, how do you re-route your tour so that your adult visitors do not get wet but your tour still makes sense?

If you decide to bring your tour group to view some of the sculptures installed away from the main, hilltop area, what sort of conversation/ information do you given them when you are taking them on a five minute hike across a field? While these large-scale sculptures in the outdoor landscape appear to be huge, sturdy constructions that look like they would be fun to touch or climb on, how do you explain the “no touching” rule so that it still makes sense?

Fortunately, Storm King Art Center docents are up to the challenge. Each docent has learned to handle these situations, and more, in their own personalized and effective ways.

Wayne Lempka is the curator of education at the Storm King Art Center, which is located in Mountainville, New York.

Lempka, Wayne. “Storm King Art Center,” The Docent Educator 8.1 (Autumn 1998): 16-17.

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