Do your New Year’s resolutions include getting out more, doing more for your community, and enjoying more art? You might want to consider becoming one of the hundreds of volunteers who serve as museum docents and theater ushers for local arts organizations. It’s a great way to support the arts and connect with other people in our region.
Cincinnati Art Museum’s docent program dates back to 1960 when it was founded byJunior League members. In 1960, the first class of 28 Cincinnati Art Museum docents was established by the Junior League of Cincinnati in cooperation with the Cincinnati Public Schools and Philip Rhys Adams, museum director. This course taught docents to interpret the Art Museum’s permanent collections as they related to the sixth grade social studies curriculum. The emphasis was on history, culture, and present day trends, rather than an analysis of technical and artistic processes. In 1961, following the success of a pilot program involving 24 elementary schools chosen by the Board of Education, the program grew to include all 6,000 sixth grade public school pupils.
Today, Cincinnati Art Museum has more than 160 active docents and they lead almost 95% of school and public tours. “We could not serve almost 25,000 students each year without our docents,” says Emily Holtrop, Director of Learning and Interpretation. Docents go through more than a year of rigorous training, learning about the museum’s collection, art history 101, and how to best engage different audiences in meaningful conversations about the arts.
“Our docents train to connect with visitors of all ages and abilities, from little kids to teenagers to guests with special needs,” says Ms. Holtrop. “The Art Museum belongs to everyone in our community and so they have to know how to serve all members of our community. Our mission is to bring people and art together and they are the ones doing it.”
If you've ever attended local theater, then you’ve likely been handed a show program by a volunteer usher. Ushers welcome audience members, help with wayfinding, and distribute programs. Some ushers also assist in delivering audience surveys that help theaters understand the demographics of their audiences and the impact of their work. Theaters appreciate the time and dedication of these volunteers who play an important role in creating a great audience experience. Ushers often are allowed to see the show for free as a thank you for their service.
At Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, many couples and groups of friends usher together as part of their regular social life. “We have some ushers who have become friends from volunteering here and plan their dates so they can work together,” says Lettie VanHemert, Managing Director, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. She notes that this network of dedicated theater fans often usher at multiple theaters, becoming a shared resource for the theater community. Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park sees families using ushering as an opportunity to spend time together and even has a four-generation family of ushers!
The Children’s Theater of Cincinnati has a special team of volunteer ushers to assist with their weekday school performances at the Taft Theater. Led by Emilie Dressler, School Volunteer Coordinator, this group makes sure that 2,000 kids are in their seats and ready to watch every performance. In addition to individual volunteers, Dressler also coordinates groups from community organizations like Junior League of Cincinnati, and businesses like Turner Construction.
“I love to see the students faces as they get off the bus, see the tall buildings and enter the theater to see a live performance,” says Ms. Dressler. “Many of them have never seen a live theater performance so it is a joy to see how excited they become when coming to the Taft Theatre, and their reaction after the show…I want their experience to start off in an upbeat way.”
Interested in becoming a volunteer docent or usher? Call your favorite arts organization and ask to talk to their volunteer coordinator. Museums often have waiting lists for their docent programs, but may have opportunities in other roles, such as Visitor Services Aides. Share your stories with us online with #ArtsRipple.