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The ”Ask Me” Program

Imagine standing next to a work of contemporary art. The work is particularly perplexing. You find the work difficult to comprehend, and yet it is your responsibility as a docent to explain it to others who wander by.

“I could do that; why it this thing in an art gallery?!” “I can’t believe anyone would pay money for that!” “That’s not art.” “I know what I like and I don’t like that!” “What does that mean?” How would you respond?

At the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, Canada, comments such as these are heard regularly by staff and docents of the Ask Me program, an innovative method of gallery touring that helps visitors better relate to contemporary works of art.

The Ask Me program was created in response to the Gallery’s mandate “to bring art and people together.” Currently, this is achieved three afternoons a week, when docents interact with visitors on a one-to-one basis in the galleries, initiating discussions and answering questions on a range of art-related topics. They listen to visitors’ reactions, offer information on the works and the artists, provide strategies for dealing with contemporary art, and refer visitors to resources for further learning. In this. Ask Me helps to increase visitors’ confidence in viewing contemporary art by validating their reactions and responses to it. In addition, it engages them directly with the Contemporary Collection in a lively and stimulating way.

Education staff, curators, and docents worked in teams to conceptualize and implement this program, the debut of which coincided with the re-opening of the AGO after extensive renovations. Summarizing the development of this program may encourage others to consider the applicability of this approach for their own institutions.

The origins of the Ask Me program lie in discussions that took place between educators and curators at the Gallery, as plans were being made for the reinstallation and educational enhancement of the AGO’s Contemporary Art Collection. All agreed that a human presence in the galleries was of ultimate importance in engaging visitors with the contemporary works, which would be on permanent exhibit for the first time in years. While the Gallery’s touring program was well-established, the linear approach and structured timing of a traditional tour was not seen as the best way to meet the needs of most adult and family visitors. Instead, an approach called “animateuring” seemed better suited to meeting the diverse needs of visitors and dealing with the complexities of the works on display.

Historical sites have utilized an approach similar to “animateuring” in the past, which they refer to as “interpreting.” It involves having staff or docents on hand to interact with visitors by initiating discussions or answering questions about objects or sites. The method allows responses to be geared directly to the visitors’ needs, based on age, knowledge, and learning style.

At first the task to develop and implement such a program seemed daunting, especially in light of staff and budgetary limitations. But the project proved manageable with the formation of a team of educators and docents who built the program collaboratively. To test the results of this collaboration, the team decided to conduct a five month pilot to assess the willingness of docents to adopt this new methodology, and to evaluate visitors’ responses to it.

Before the pilot was implemented, AGO docents interested in joining the program attended four special training sessions to learn about the works in the Contemporary Collection and to practice strategies needed to properly interact with visitors. These sessions included lectures about the artists; artworks and installation strategies in each gallery; problem-solving and role-playing exercises; independent research and reading; and first-hand viewing of the works. Curators collaborated by providing information on the works and the installation rationale, and experienced docents shared their knowledge about the artists and previous visitor responses to the works. Each participant was also expected to deliver a short talk about a work in the collection to fellow docents, to practice instigatingdiscussions, and to hone her “animateuring” skills.

The docents who worked the first few shifts were apprehensive and uncertain. What would visitors ask? What if they were asked questions they didn’t know the answers to? What if they were ignored? But, as the first weeks passed, these fears melted away. Initial responses were enthusiastic and encouraging; visitors openly welcomed the opportunity to discuss the works and voice their reactions to the new installations. In turn, docents found the interactions challenging and exciting.

A reporting system tracked docents’ experiences over the first three months, and served as an informal means of communication for the group. Further training sessions also acted as forums for exchanging information and sharing successful strategies. Changes were made to methodology as necessary, and information sheets on the artworks and on “animateuring” strategies were produced. Some of the strategies docents found most useful were:

  • starting an interaction with a smile and an open-ended question about the work, such as “What do you think?” or “Would this be something you would put in your home?”
  • developing a sense of trust quickly by asking visitors for their opinions or reactions to a work and listening carefully to their responses;
  • signaling accessibility by avoiding “art jargon” and showing a sense of humor;
  • allowing the conversation to go in the direction visitors wanted (rather than trying to lecture or deliver a specific set of information);
  • responding to questions with enthusiasm and interest, and being honest when you don’t know an answer;
  • recognizing that you can learn as much from visitors as they can learn from you.

While these strategies may appear straightforward and based on common sense, the docents found their new roles very different from touring. They found it challenging to spontaneously interact with visitors without the safety net of a prepared script, but also refreshing in that each encounter held something new and unexpected. Perhaps the most enjoyable facet proved to be their own on-going learning, as interactions with artists, curators, and writers continuously introduced them to fresh perspectives on the works.

Preliminary feedback from the public in this period came via the docents, as visitors expressed enthusiasm, gratitude, and relief for having someone on hand to discuss the challenging objects on display. However, in the final month of the pilot, a formal evaluation of the program was conducted to document and analyze the types of experiences that visitors and docents were having.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Users of the program declared very high levels of satisfaction with their involvement and with their visit to the Contemporary Collection in general, which contrasted with lower levels for those who did not use the program. Many users wanted a similar service offered in other collections areas, and even non-users declared their interest in participating in the future. Docents were similarly positive in their responses; many enjoyed the informal and spontaneous nature of their interactions with visitors, and all reported a high level of satisfaction with their involvement.

A Typical Interaction in the Ask Me Program ..

A visitor is examining Untitled (Basel), by artist Robert Ryman. The work consists of five white paintings, all of equal size and shape. The quizzical visitor is approached by an Ask Me docent, who initiates an encounter.

Docent: It looks like this work interests you. May I ask what you think of it?

Visitor: To be perfectly honest, I was just wondering why these paintings are hanging in here; my children could have painted them!

D: It’s true, from a distance, they do look like they were simple to make. But have you had a close look at the way the artist put them together?

V: I think they were painted on wood or plastic, and there’s also some cardboard underneath each one. They do look more complicated to make when you look at them up close.

D: This is one of the artist’s intentions—to get you to look closely at their construction.

V: Okay, but I still don’t get the point. Why are they important enough to hang in the art gallery?

D: Well, try comparing this work to more traditional paintings you have seen before. How is this work similar or different?

V: They aren’t like other paintings at all – – there aren’t any colors or pictures. Just about the only thing that is similar is that both are made out of paint.

D: Exactly! The artist, Robert Ryman, wanted you to focus on the basics of painting, without being distracted by colors or pictures. He wanted viewers to focus on what painting is ultimately about—the physical act of putting paint onto a surface. When this series was made in the late 1960’s, many artists were interested in exploring the basic tenets of art-making by focusing on the true nature of their materials.

V: But his paintings are so simple that anyone could have made them!

D: But not just anyone did; and for me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of his work. Artists like Ryman make us focus on the ideas behind the art. They force us to be creative. This work generates lots of ideas from people who view it, which is one reason why it is considered important to include in our collection.

V: Well, I’m still not sure how I feel about this work, but I do think I understand it better now. Thanks for your help!

D: If you want to discuss any other artworks during your visit I’ll be available—just Ask Me!

Hilary Inwood co-developed the Ask Me program with Elizabeth Topp, who is Docent Co-ordinator at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ms. Inwood heads Inwood and Associates, a consulting firm in Toronto, which develops educational programs and resources for museum and school environments. She holds an M.A. in art history from York University and is working toward an M.Ed, at the University of Toronto.

Inwood, Hilary. “The ‘Ask Me’ Program,” The Docent Educator 4.4 (Summer 1995): 4-5+.

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