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Art Guides, Docent Program

Carina Hume - November 16th, 2006
Twenty excited third-graders gather near the stairs in the Crooked Tree Arts Center’s lower level.
“Do you know what you’re going to see today?” asks Susan Sheets, a six-year veteran of the art center’s docent program and current co-chair.
Five hands shoot into the air. “Paintings,” says one student.
“Drawings,” says another.
Petoskey teacher Lisa Penberthy’s class has obviously been here before.
This time, the students are taking a journey through other people’s “Secret Spaces of Childhood” – a blanket under a piano was Penberthy’s – and Sheets, as docent, is leading the way.

“A docent-led tour is guided by someone that has been trained in the techniques of the art that’s represented in the gallery or the philosophy or the psychology of the artist,” says Gail Hosner, CTAC’s Visual Arts and Education director. “(The docents) have a broader perspective of what brought that show together.”
To be a docent, a person must be willing to attend training several times a year, shadow an experienced docent to gain experience, sign up for at least one tour at each training session, and enjoy spending time with children.
“Our docent program is charged with professional educators and artists and writers that draw on their own life experience,” says Hosner.
Docents begin their training in September of each year with an overview of how the program runs, along with specifics about upcoming shows. New exhibits typically open on a Saturday and docents are then trained for two hours on the following Monday.
“At that time,” explains Hosner, “(docents) get a gallery talk, often meet the artist or someone with a level of expertise on the exhibition and then (docents) come down and do a hands-on project.”
Morning tours from 9:30-11 a.m., which include a hands-on project to reinforce the current exhibit’s theme, are most popular. Older students often take the afternoon tours, from 1-2 p.m., leaving the hands-on project to the younger ones.

Susan Sheets and Ruth Ann Hull have been co-chairs of CTAC’s Docent Program for the past three years. Now largely dependent on volunteers, the program began in the early 1980s utilizing CTAC’s small paid staff with just a few volunteers to help lead school groups through the gallery.
In 2000, arts center member Judy Knowles became chair of a newly formed Visual Arts Committee, bringing with her over 20 years experience from the Detroit Institute of the Arts. A Docent Program subcommittee was soon formed with Rhea Murray, a retired school librarian, serving as its first chair. She created the first docent handbook and the program began to evolve into what it is today.
Currently, the program trains nearly 30 volunteers to lead over 80 tours per year. More than 3,500 students in the past year have had the chance to visit, learn and express their creativity through hands-on projects using clay, paint, found objects and more.

Unlike other art galleries and museums in Northern Michigan, CTAC’s displays and docent programs are free. Current funding for the exhibits is provided by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Charlevoix County Community Foundation, the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the Bay Harbor Foundation and many anonymous individuals. Funds for transportation are also provided to any school in the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District as needed.
Anyone – from home-school students to senior centers – can make use of the docent program, but priority is given to students within the district first.
“We try to give top priority to the school kids,” says Hosner, “because that’s what it’s been funded for and that’s what we’re geared up toward.”

For Penberthy’s Petoskey Ottawa Elementary class, the arts center and its offerings are just a 20-minute walk away.
“It is important to me that my students have exposure to diverse educational experiences,” she says. “I feel privileged to have such a well-run art center within walking distance of our school to meet the goals I have for my students’ educations.”
Her class visits about three times a year and she always tries to select the morning tour with the hands-on project.
“I think an appreciation for the fine arts is a valuable trait to possess,” says Penberthy. “I also value the cultural awareness the arts cultivate. These are both attributes of well-rounded individuals.”
The school tour begins as hundreds of footsteps announce the students’ arrival at the main floor gallery. The first stop is “Jack’s Hideout,” a tiny grapevine hut fashioned by artists Justin Guarisco and Ceci Bauer in memory of their friend Jack Batstone. The children are allowed to go in and explore the hut decorated with rocks, a bug on a spring, a tiny chair and a table.
Then it’s into the gallery for more artists’ interpretations of the theme of the exhibit and Elizabeth Goodenough’s book (“Secret Spaces of Childhood”) of the same name. Sheets’ in-depth explanations of several art pieces come after a little quiet-time to give students a chance to form their own thoughts about each work. Several students jump at the opportunity to “Be the Docent” and share their interpretations of a favorite piece with the class.

“I think that in our area we have a unique gift to give to the people in this community,” says Hosner, noting that the Crooked Tree Arts Center was just awarded the top non-profit arts organization in the state.
She credits the strength of the arts center’s staff, the two museum-level galleries and generous funding as additional reasons for the center’s success.
“Every year Crooked Tree gets a little bit more well-known, a little bit more in the media,” Hosner continues. “People are coming to us from outside the area saying, ‘We don’t know how you’re doing what you’re doing, but keep doing it.’”
A fun-filled morning is about over for Penberthy’s class, as students hurry to finish their projects. The class will be back sometime next year, if not for a tour, then for the Crooked Tree Arts Center’s Youth Art Show they participate in each spring.
Clutching their own “secret spaces” in their hands, the students and Penberthy head out the door. “So many creative little secrets,” Sheets says to them with a smile. “Thanks for sharing.”

For more information about any of Crooked Tree Arts Center’s programs, call 231-347-4337 or visit

Secret Spaces Exhibit
The Secret Spaces of Childhood exhibit is inspired by a book of the same name full of essays, poems and stories, edited by Elizabeth Goodenough, a lecturer in comparative literature at the Residential College at the University of Michigan.
The book recounts authors’ memories about significant parts of their lives and what was meaningful about them. In 1998, “An Exhibition of Remembered Hide-Outs” was presented in the Residential College Art Gallery in Grosse Pointe Shores. The current CTAC exhibit was inspired by both the book and the 1998 exhibit and is sponsored in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Bay Harbor Foundation and the Triford Foundation. Local artist and CTAC member Susan Glass participated in both exhibitions and was instrumental in bringing the concept to the Crooked Tree Arts Center. Secret Spaces of Childhood is on display through Saturday, Nov. 25 in CTAC’s Edith Gilbert Gallery. Hours of operation are Mon.-Fri. 9-5, Sat. 10-4.

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