Soon after Karen Swanson moved from Virginia to St. Petersburg, she heard that the new James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art was looking for docents. So she went by and volunteered her services.
“I don’t know anything about art or the West,” she told a staff member, “but I’d love to learn.” Five years later, she not only is expert enough to guide tours of the museum, she’s also made many friends among the 70 other docents.
Whether it’s to meet people, indulge a passion for art or just keep the brain active in retirement, being a docent can be a fulfilling and helpful way to spend time. Tampa Bay art museums rely on docents — from the Latin word “to teach” — to instruct guests about their collections and in many ways serve as the public face of the institution.
“Docents are an integral part of the James Museum‚” said Marsha Quinn, the education manager. “Their role has increased as the museum has grown over the past five years, and it is common to see a docent working with the public in one of our art studios or assisting with a student art show.”
Training to become a docent can be rigorous. At St. Petersburg’s Dali Museum, which showcases the work of the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, docents take a 21-week class that meets three hours a week. Lisa Roberts, whose background is in fashion, said she struggled so much she nearly gave up.
“We had to read all this different stuff from different books about Dali that were written by superb scholars and it was not easy language,” she said. “I sent a few paragraphs to my sister, who has three advanced degrees, and she said, ‘Oh my God, I’d have trouble with that,’ and she’s an academic.”
Nevertheless, Roberts soldiered on, spurred by the example of their mother. She was in the Dalí’s first docent class, volunteered for 33 years and was so beloved that her memorial service was held at the museum. “I wanted to pay homage to my mother,” Roberts said.
Since retiring as a financial adviser several years ago, Helen Huntley has become known as the “docent extraordinaire.” She volunteers at three St. Petersburg museums: the James, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.
“I did a lot of planning for retirement and thinking about what I was going to do and what I like to do, and basically I like learning stuff and sharing with other people,” Huntley said. “The number one thing about being a docent is you have to like learning things and studying and reading.”
Looking to explore the Tampa Bay area?
Subscribe to our free One Day in Tampa Bay newsletter series
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
As part of their training, docents “shadow” more seasoned docents and, at the Tampa Museum of Art, do a family and friends tour before going out on their own. Docents at each museum are expected to conduct a certain number of tours each year. The majority of docents are retirees who come from a wide variety of fields — doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists. Most are women but by no means all.
Chuck Duritsch, a creative director, realized he needed to do something to occupy his time after retiring and moving to downtown St. Petersburg. The James Museum was just a few blocks away, so he became a docent and now enjoys it so much he does more than the required two tours a month.
“At the start, I was so nervous I had little index cards with all my information, but we shadowed a lot of the docents and one said, ‘Chuck, just go with what you know, show what you’re comfortable showing them and don’t worry about trying to show a bigger picture.’”
Like many other docents, Duritsch said he especially likes to lead tours of school groups. He finds that younger kids are engaged and express how they feel. Once, while discussing a painting called “Shearing the Sheep,” he displayed a piece of cut wool and asked if anyone wanted to smell it.
“One kid said, ‘It smells like Target.’ I just looked at the chaperone and we started laughing.”
At the Dali Museum, some of the paintings are risque enough that the museum offers adults-only “provocatours.” Docent Sandra Selzer recalls asking a group of older women if they wanted the regular tour or the one with the word “vagina” in it. They eagerly chose the latter.
Some Dali docents are as eye-catching as the art. Janice Embrey Brown, who was “blown away” on first seeing Dali’s works 25 years ago, wears a shoe-shaped hat like one made by Dali’s friend, fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. “Surrealism is taking something where it usually is,” she tells visitors, “and putting it somewhere it will never be.”
Docents do more than lead tours. Candi James, who became a docent at the James a year ago, volunteered to help with a class in the museum’s art studio that was offered during a special Andy Warhol exhibit. “Every week for six weeks,” she said, “I was scrubbing paint jars.”
Sara Cohen, a retired interior designer who volunteers at the Tampa Museum of Art, said one of the things she likes most about being a docent is the frequently changing exhibits. “I don’t think I could absorb any more right now,” she said, “but learning about different things keeps me interested.”
Surrounded by great pieces of art, many docents have their favorites. Not so for Anne Shamas, a longtime docent at the Museum of Fine Arts.
“That’s like asking me who is my favorite child,” she said. “I love everything, and after 40 years they are all old friends.”
Want to be a docent?
Tampa Museum of Art, 120 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. email@example.com. Docents in training meet for two hours every other Monday for a year. No classes currently scheduled but names of those interested will be kept on file.
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE. Docents leading gallery tours take 68 hours of training over several months. Docent specialists, who work with PK-12 school groups, take a 16-hour course at the start of each school year. Check mfastpete.org for information on when new docent applications open.
Dalí Museum, 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg. thedali.org/join/volunteer/become-docent/. Docents take a 21-week class offered every 16 months depending on attrition with the next class scheduled for spring 2024.
The Museum of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 355 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg. firstname.lastname@example.org. Docents complete a 10-week session; a new one starts this spring.
The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, 150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. thejamesmuseum.org/volunteer. Entry into the program includes an application and an interview to gauge compatibility with the program. Classes are held once a week for 12 to 14 weeks with the next class expected in 2024.