Skip to main content
Boom Calendar for Grown-ups ~ Curated for Us @ Fifty Plus
Share this article

After retiring from a New York law practice in the 1940s, Alfred Heber Holbrook began a mission – sharing his passion for art with the people. For him “the people” included anyone who did not have opportunities to view and experience fine art. Because access to exhibits was rare in the South, Holbrook turned his attention in that direction. Having acquired an impressive personal collection, Holbrook was compelled to share the beauty and history of art with anyone and everyone. So, he started a museum. 

Today that museum is the Georgia Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Georgia and the official art museum of the state of Georgia. Over the years the collection has grown, and the facilities have expanded. From 100 American paintings, the collection now includes more than 18,000 pieces of art from all over the world. However, the mission is still the same – art for the people.  

One of the ways the museum reaches the people today is through a team of volunteer docents who learn the collection and present it to visitors. These docents come from all walks of life but share a common love of art. Mallory Lind, Associate Curator of Education, is responsible for the docent team and says one of the main goals of the docent program is to provide visitors with a positive experience. Like Holbrook, Lind hopes that every person who enters the museum will find something that inspires them. 

“Athens has a very diverse population,” says Lind. For that reason, she is always working to develop diversity among the docents. “There is not an assumption that we all have the same life experience.” She would like to see as many different cultures represented as possible so that everyone is greeted by someone they can relate to.  

Docents come to the museum with a wide range of familiarity with art, including professional art experience to having no art background at all. Docent President Marilyn Wolf-Ragatz, 79, was an art educator for her entire career and has been a docent since 2017.  

For her, the museum is a place to continue exploring her passion for teaching and art. “My whole life has been in art ed, but docent training works with those who don’t have that experience. Many are nervous, but there is no pushing. We have a great time together,” says Wolf-Ragatz. 

Fellow docent, Joan Curtis, says she came to the museum as an “artist idiot” with no art training. “I spent most of my career doing leadership training for public and private entities. A docent since 2017, Curtis says, “I had no knowledge, but do have a love of art, and I wanted to learn.”  

A conversation, not a lecture 

For anyone who may think the museum is too daunting, Lind says, “We don’t expect our docents to know everything about every work in our collection and we encourage a more conversational tour which can be less intimidating for new docents compared to a lecture-style tour.”  

Docents are encouraged to learn along with visitors. “We encourage them to explore the work of art with the visitor and see what answers they can come to together through looking and discussion.” 

School and private group tours are scheduled by the education programs assistant and docents select the tours that work best for their schedule. The greatest number of tours take place during the semester that the museum hosts tours for the 5th graders in Athens. Fourteen schools of 5th graders, totaling over 1,000 children, come through the museum during approximately a two-month period.  

“We never want to overload our docents or ask too much of them by over-scheduling tours to the point of burnout,” says Lind. “We do our best to keep a constant tally of the number of tours each docent has given and could have the capacity to give going forward. Established docents give on average five to six tours each semester.” 

While some use notes, each docent has their own favorite pieces and their own style. They spend a lot of their time at the museum learning about the collection and are encouraged to lean into their own passions. For instance, Wolf-Ragatz favorite piece is a painting by Eugenie McEvoy called “Taxi, Taxi.” When she stops at this piece, she lingers to ask people what they see in the painting. Her delight at drawing attention to the details in this work is obvious as she points out the colors and movement.  

Wolf-Ragatz says, “Children love art and should be exposed more broadly to that world outside the school. The tours offer them ideas for art as a future career or hopefully, help them understand the value of art in all aspects of their lives.” 

While school tours are developed by the education staff, public tours highlight the permanent collection and the docent leading the tour designs it based on their individual preferences and knowledge of the collection. During the docent training sessions, docents practice among themselves and develop hands-on visual aids for other docents to share and use on tours if they choose to.  

Docents get ongoing training in both the art collection and how to deal with tour groups. Because many of their groups are children, the docents are given training on engaging children and pacing tours. Likewise, docents discuss how to facilitate individuals with challenges. If docents are asked questions about the workings of the museum that they can’t answer, they can direct visitors to the front desk staff. 

If there is an emergency, there are procedures to follow in the docent handbook, but the Gallery Guides (security) are always nearby and know what to do. If the docent sees a visitor touch a work of art, they can tell the Guides and they will report the incident.  

“We never want to put our docents into an uncomfortable situation or ask them to handle an issue that is outside of their job duties,” says Lind. 

Training meetings are held every other Monday from August to May and often are taught by experts in specific areas. In 2023 docents had the opportunity to hear a lecture on the Russian collection, learning about the pieces, their history and their acquisition. This summer an expert in Chinese art will be leading a special tour for docents on that collection.  

While the docent program is an excellent way for people to engage with the museum, there are many other educational opportunities for the community, several of them specifically for Boomers.  At a recent OLLI program, Lind spoke to the museum’s role in facilitating creative aging, citing “programs that focus on the evolution of creativity over the lifespan.” 

These include seated yoga, art-making workshops, artist talks and lectures, art and wellness and morning mindfulness. These programs are designed specifically to engage people 50 and older with art and the museum.  

Wolf-Ragatz says that living in Athens is a privilege and that the community has so much to enjoy, “We have the best museum, the best performing arts, the best botanical gardens. What more could you ask?”  

Some people, says Lind, feel like museums are intimidating, formal places. However, her goal is to make the museum feel welcoming to everyone from all backgrounds and she encourages people who might never have encountered fine art to consider exploring the docent program. A knowledge of art, teaching or public speaking is not necessary. 

“We’d like to see greater diversity among the docents as a reflection of the community and the collection of art itself,” she says.  

Kelly Capers is a freelance journalist who enjoys the art of aging by writing for Boom Magazine. 

Join the discussion!

Your comment will be reviewed before it appears here, so please be patient.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.