Docent Lucinda Ballard has been enthusiastically leading tours throughout New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art for over 15 years. We caught up with her to get a glimpse into life behind the scenes at the world-renowned art institute.
What was your experience before you became a docent?
I was a filmmaker, director, writer and producer making all kinds of educational films. It is very similar to what I’m doing now in that I was taking lots of material and trying to make it understandable to a general audience. At the museum, we try to distill a lot of information and engage the audience. I was also an actress and that really has served me well. Whether you are presenting to a first grader or an 80 year old your engagement skills are very important.
Spending your days talking about art is such a dream job. Did you always want to do it?
It never dawned on me! I had taken a leave of absence at [advertising agency] Ogilvy & Mather and the person next to me at the swimming pool and was telling me about this wonderful job, and I thought, “This is what I want to do.” I applied immediately and I got a rejection letter. But I didn’t give up.
What kind of training do you have to do to become a docent?
The training is very extensive. I was the Training Chair and it it is like being a coach to 30 adults for nine months. The docents meet with curators, learn how to research, and practice presentation skills. Even people that come from very illustrious backgrounds—doctors, lawyers—are shaking as they give presentations for the first time to a group of people who are evaluating them. It is very intense, but it works. The quality of the guides is just extraordinary.
Does each docent have a specialty?
Yes, and you either go to school programs or community programs or adult collection tours. Once you fulfill your requirements you can expand and move to another area. There is a pretty rigorous way of reviewing guides before they move on to anything else. We are constantly doing peer reviews to make sure everybody is doing their job. It really does keep everyone on their toes.
Tell us about an experience you’ve had as a docent that has stuck with you.
My first year I was taking a group of children around that had never been to a museum before. We were standing in front of a Greek statue of a girl with her pet doves. I started asking the children what they thought the statue was showing them and why they thought this girl was looking a little unhappy. Their answers were, Well, maybe she’s homeless…maybe her father’s in jail. They were responding to it on their level and that was very poignant for me. We always want to start where they are, and then bring them to a place they are connected to the artist’s intention and the content of the art. The job is about getting children or adults not to listen to us talking, but to talk themselves, to use their eyes and venture to guess what it might mean, and to look for relevance with their own lives.
What have been some of your experiences teaching visitors about modern art?
Many people start the tour really petrified because they might not have experience with modern art before. But then there is that moment when their eyes light up, when they really get it. It is all about engaging the audience. Tom Campbell’s [the director of the Met] mission is really about trying to engage every kind of audience. He wants art be accessible to everyone.
For someone who hasn’t been to the Met, what are some highlights you recommend?
Naked Man, Back View by Lucien Freud is really fabulous. White Flag by Jasper Johns is a piece you can appreciate on so many levels. You can look at it as a really beautiful object or find some really interesting intellectual discourse. The Female Dancer from the Han Dynasty is an ancient clay sculpture that was made in a mold but it has such fluidity, such elegance. It is hard to believe that it was mass-produced. The American wing is extraordinary. The newly restored Washington Crossing the Delaware has never looked finer. The Met has more Vermeers than many museums, I believe we have 6 including Study of a Young Woman. Our African Wing is fantastic and the Pacific Wing is exhilarating. Visitors really should take tours because it makes all the difference in the world to have art interpreted by someone who really knows.