Nov. 7 2012 12:00 AM

Veteran docents take the plunge into contemporary art

If you’re not sure how to engage with contemporary art at the Broad Museum, find your inner child. An outer one is even better.

Suzanne Rebeck was an art teacher in Lansing for 30 years and a docent, or guide, at MSU’s Kresge Art Museum for three years. Kresge closed in August to make way for the Broad Museum, but many of the “old docents” are eagerly re-tooling their brains for the mind-bending input to come at the Broad.

How are they staying so supple when people half their age get hives over contemporary art?

They didn’t grow up.

Last month, Rebeck talked to a class of about 65 aspiring Broad Museum docents, half former Kresge docents and half MSU students. She told the group she had just taken her 9-year-old son to Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize competition.

“He loved all the art he saw,” Rebeck said. “It was fascinating seeing him freeze in front of the art and absorb it all.”

Mother and son spent a long time under Martijn van Wagtendonk’s kinetic sculpture “Song of Lift.”

“He wanted to see it three times,” Rebeck said. “He was asking questions — What did it mean?”

Kids have the perfect formula for approaching something new, according to former Kresge docent Karla Dulic.

“When you show them something, they’re more interested in it than wanting to judge it,” Dulic said. “They want to know why the artist made it, how they did it and what it’s about, instead of standing back and judging it first.”

Dulic started as a docent in 2001 and was president of the Kresge docents from 2008 to 2010. She experienced the power of seeing like a kid first hand on a warm weekend in May 2012, when serial gangs of 10-year-olds invaded Kresge as part of Gesso, an outreach program for area grade school kids that will continue at the Broad Museum.

Kresge was set to close in August to make way for the new museum, but that afternoon the joint was jumping. Broad Museum Director Michael Rush checked in on the ruckus to see the Gesso program in action. 

The kids plopped down in the hallway across from a 25-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling abstract canvas by MSU master’s student Jon Anthony, “Pet Rock,” hung a few weeks earlier. The critical notices were short but inspired.

“It’s looking back at me like I am the art,” one student said.

“I call this happiness,” said another.

“This painting will last until 2038,” a decisive young man declared.

Dulic watched the fun with the visiting students and teachers.

“Actually, the kids respond better to contemporary art than older art,” she said. “It’s their chaperones that have trouble with it sometimes.”

Last spring, Rush hooked up one of Kresge’s signature pieces, Harry Bertoia’s waist-high beryllium chimes, to a big-screen video that translates sounds into light patterns. The contraption was part of a teaser exhibit showing how the Kresge collection could be used in innovative ways at the Broad.

The fifth-graders from Lansing’s Reo Elementary School watched avidly while a docent put on a pair of white gloves, bundled the sculpture’s thin metal rods together, and let them ricochet in all directions. 

Zdringgg!! The matrix of rods pulsated with tones and overtones. In response, the wall-sized screen blossomed into noodly neon patterns.

“Whoaaaa,” one student said.

“That looks like a bird,” added a more literal-minded classmate.

“I see music,” said another, nailing the contemporary-art takeaway: synesthesia, the cooperation of the senses.

Not everyone is privileged to be 10 years old. Dulic is braced to deal with plenty of grownup bafflement at the Broad.

“’Why is this art?’ — we’ll probably get that with every tour,” Dulic said. “But I’m looking forward to that. It allows you to have a conversation and let the viewer decide whether it’s art. How often do you have a conversation standing in front of a landscape?”

Jane Schneider, an art teacher for 35 years and Kresge docent since 2009, told the panel at MSU last month that a docent’s job is to be a catalyst.

“We are guides, not lecturers,” she said. “You don’t have to like art. It’s more of a communication and dialogue thing.”

Schneider said some docents even go out of their way to engage with art they dislike.

“The more you know, the more it becomes a part of you, the more you own it,” she told the group. “I’ve been going to the Detroit Institute of Arts since I was a little kid, and I feel like I own some of the pieces.”

Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts and a member of the Broad Museum advisory board, also recommends staying young at heart.

“The younger you are, the more open you’re going to be to contemporary art,” Beal said. “I’m talking about children 7, 8 years old. Studies show that as we get older, we shut options down.”

Many of the former docents in the MSU class are past 50 — some well past — and most were unfamiliar with contemporary art before taking this fall’s docent class.

“We relate well to the new viewer who has never been in a contemporary art museum before,” Dulic said. “Many of us went through the same experience.”

Last year, 15 former Kresge docents got ready for this year’s Broad Museum launch by visiting Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the world’s largest, and architect Renzo Piano’s 2009 Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Most of the docents who made the trip are in Shapiro’s class.

The trip got them fired up.

“We’re looking forward to every class and anxious to get into the new museum,” Rebeck said.

Rebeck’s year-long training at Kresge in 2009 went from primitive art to the 1950s, but it didn’t include contemporary art. “Contemporary art always leaves me — the first time I look at it, I think, ‘anybody could do that.’ But the more you dwell on the ideas of the artist, the more interesting it becomes. I’m fascinated with the idea that social and political thought is right there.”

Susan Brewster was in the very first group of Kresge docents in 1975 and taught elementary art in Lansing and Okemos for over 20 years. After retiring 10 years ago, she started working with art interns and teaching art education at MSU. “I love the Broad,” Brewster said. “We’re so lucky. New York has come to us.”

Broad Museum Education Director Aimee Shapiro, who teaches the class, said grappling with contemporary art calls for “a unique amount of flexibility and open-mindedness,” but found the students eager to stretch themselves.

In a recent class, Shapiro showed the group a slide of Joseph Beuys’ “Schlitten (Sled),” a work from the Broad Museum’s opening exhibitions, without giving the class any information. It’s not a painting, a sculpture, or a collage, but a real sled with a blanket and flashlight strapped to the top — a “ready made,” in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal.

“Why is this art?” was the inevitable first question. Every question spawned another. Did it refer to the greatest day in the artist’s life? The worst? Was it a memento of an adventure or a fantasy of one? What do the blanket and flashlight mean?

Together, the class pieced together an interpretation that was close to the audio commentary museum visitors will hear from Rush and Curator Alison Gass. 

Shapiro was amazed. “They got the complete story,” she said. “When I first saw this piece I had no idea what it was about.” 

When the class ends in early December, some students will become museum docents and some will find other ways to volunteer their time. The Gesso elementary school program will expand at the Broad and join a host of other activities, including hands-on family activities and guest talks on Saturdays and a program that brings seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s and their caretakers to the museum. 

Shapiro’s goal is to have programs for all ages up and running soon.

Of course, the museum will supply patrons with up-to-the-minute navigational aids, including audio guides, but there is no substitute for human interaction. 

“The docents really are the front line,” Gass said. “In some ways, they are the face of the museum. And if the docents are any indication, people are ready for this museum.”

Training is required for Broad Museum docents. Contact Education Director Aimee Shapiro at