Museums begin to cast a wider net for guides Weekend programs lure nontraditional volunteers


WASHINGTON -- On a tour of abstract expressionist art in the National Gallery last fall, a tourist from a small town in New York left his spellbound wife and stepped outside in disgust. "Do you believe that stuff in there?" he said to the first person he encountered, a lanky, dark-haired man.

To his surprise, the man standing next to him did not agree. Instead, Thomas Gilday responded by explaining the post-World War II devastation in which abstract artist Mark Rothko worked. "Hey, Louise," the tourist called to his wife, "come listen to this guy."

In a museum of Americana, Mr. Gilday could well be an exhibit of social change.

The 36-year-old building contractor from Silver Spring is a docent, or museum guide. He is part of a pioneering effort by the National Gallery of Art to attract full-time professionals as volunteer guides.

Historically, the job of passing on culture to the masses has been the bailiwick of women, many of them well-educated, middle-aged and affluent enough that they did not need to work outside the home. The intensive year-long training program in art history required by the National Gallery and other museums of their volunteers took place on Mondays, when the museum is closed and Mr. Gilday is at work.

But three years ago, around the time Mr. Gilday's business came upon hard times, giving him a bit more leisure time, the gallery broke a 40-year tradition and called in its senior staff to train docents on Saturdays.

Now the Baltimore Museum of Art is joining the tiny group of museums moving to enlist full-time professionals by offering a similar weeknight training program. "I think you'll find more and more museums doing it," said director Arnold L. Lehman.

Officials say that museums are waking up to the reality that "ladies of leisure" -- women of a certain social class who do not work outside the home -- are an anachronism.

In Baltimore, as in Washington, the weekend training program has multiple goals.

These include enlisting docents who better reflect the diverse audiences museums want to attract and tapping educated professionals who have an interest but no training in art.

Before the gallery opened its weekend training program, there were no weekend tours.

Now there are six, and officials hope to double the number next year.

Despite the intense training -- 2 1/2 hours a week for nine months, six to 12 hours of weekly reading and an exam -- the Washington program has attracted lawyers, doctors, scientists and government workers.

"They are diverse across the board," says Wilford W. Scott, who runs the gallery weekend docent program. "They tend to be younger. They are slightly better educated in terms of advanced degrees -- they are lawyers and M.A.s -- but rather less educated in the arts. They see it as a way to balance their professional lives," Mr. Scott said.

And one more thing: About 40 percent of the weekend group is male, compared to 20 percent of volunteers during the week.

The entry of men into the female-dominated volunteer culture that helped build American museums, libraries and other cultural attractions -- described by Helen Hooven Santmeyer in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, " . . . And Ladies of the Club" -- is still in an "embryonic stage," says Robert D'Annuncio, 44, the chair of weekend docents at the gallery. He is one of the ambassadors of culture helping to make it more acceptable.

Only three of the 185 docents at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art are male. In Baltimore, it is one in 75. While no museum is yet reporting a shortage of volunteers during the week, many are finding that the docent pool is increasingly limited to those women who drop out of the labor market temporarily to raise small children or who have flexible work schedules.

Monica Cavell, for instance, a 30-year-old Baltimore docent, took a job as a health care administrator on the condition that she could continue to give Friday morning tours. It was "pure luck," she says, that she was unemployed for most of the year-long Monday morning training program.

Miriam Arenberg, a clinical psychologist, saw patients at night so she could attend weekday training sessions.

These women are the exception.

In his travels to museums in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., says 19-year-old Yaval Cavari, an Israeli living in Baltimore, "I saw only middle-aged women, in their 50s" leading tours. So when he encountered Mr. Gilday at the National Gallery yesterday, Mr. Cavari said, "I thought he was a staff member."

Mr. Gilday, the president of Gilday Design & Remodeling, an architecture firm, gave away his status as a volunteer soon enough. "Hey, I can understand your perplexity," he told tourists, "I felt that way myself until three years ago."

In an hour-long tour, this self-described "regular guy" with no formal training in art discussed Alexander Calder's mobile, Picasso's love life and narrated the forces from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism -- Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Rothko and Jackson Pollock's paint drippings -- all with a dose of humor. "Don't worry if you think something horrific," he told them, "your tax dollars do not pay for the art."

He got a standing ovation.

"I don't have any problem with an irate husband who is wondering why this piece from Picasso is called art. I try to keep it interesting and put in a little humor," he said.

For Mr. Gilday, who has gone on to take a drawing class and join a group of supporters at another art gallery, art has become a passion.

"I had to study quite a bit the first year, because I had to catch up on 1,000 years of art history," said Mr. Gilday. "But it has added a good deal to my life. I've gotten some very good friends.

"Artists approach the world from a different point of view," he said. He is trying to explain to lay people what that is -- like that New York tourist who marched back into the gallery with his wife to reinspect Rothko. Said Mr. Gilday: "I had him turned around in five minutes."

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