The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is asking its docents for a do-over.
The Smithsonian’s modern art museum was vilified last fall after it replaced its long-standing docent program with a new initiative based on a college internship model. Four months later, the Hirshhorn has changed the program again, this time to encourage its former docents to return.
The museum announced it would reduce the new program’s weekly requirement of 15 hours to eight hours to accommodate the schedules of the mostly retired, older women in the docent corps. The changes were made to ensure “that we’re leaving room for the continued participation of former docents,” according to an e-mail sent Jan. 16.
That was good news to many of the volunteers who were crushed when the Hirshhorn disbanded their program.
“I can’t do it until the summer, but I am going to do it,” said Lisa Ney of Winchester, who had been a docent since 1980. “It’s exciting to be in a museum, to meet the artists and hear what they are doing and why they are doing it.”
The Hirshhorn’s ham-fisted handling of the docent program sparked outrage in community, museum and Smithsonian circles. Weeks before the arrival of new director Melissa Chiu, museum officials told its corps of docents — some of whom had volunteered for four decades — that their program was being cut in favor of a Gallery Guide internship program geared to emerging museum professionals. The docents were told they could apply for a spot in the new program, but they would have to commit to 15 hours of week for each four-month cycle and re-apply for each new term.
The docents, who averaged just a few hours a week, were hurt, saying they were being tossed aside in favor of younger volunteers. The Hirshhorn said the change was needed to adapt to changes in visitor preferences.
Museum spokeswoman Kelly Carnes said the changes are not a reversal but part of a larger strategic planning process that began with Chiu’s arrival. This spring’s hybrid program will include seven individuals who will work 15 hours a week and six former docents who will contribute eight hours. It is billed as a pilot that will be monitored.
“We will see how it goes,” Carnes said. “We will continue to test some things, to find the sweet spot between training and hours in the gallery to create the strongest program we can.”
Janet Hahn, head of the docent council, welcomed the changes to the time requirement.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Hahn, who was a Gallery Guide in the fall, said. “Fifteen hours a week was a lot. I loved it. I didn’t want to leave the museum, but I had second thoughts about re-upping.”
Hirshhorn officials said matching student interns with more experienced docents will benefit visitors. Hahn agrees.
“There’s this wonderful interchange,” she said. The students “have such energy and enthusiasm, and they know a whole lot of contemporary art and they know the theory. On the other hand, docents have a history with the museum and a history with the art.”
The museum gave the docents only three days to decide if they wanted to participate in the spring program that begins next month. Laurie Nakamoto of Arlington said that suggests the museum hasn’t really changed.
“I think it’s a little insulting,” she said. “I would like to join the Hirshhorn again if I can talk to [visitors] in the galleries. As a volunteer, I want to be given the necessary training materials. I don’t expect that I should do the research for the staff.”
The adjustments to the Gallery Guide program follow December’s docent appreciation lunch. More than three dozens former volunteers returned to the museum for the event, which also included former curators and staff. Hahn said it was lovely.
“The speeches were warm, we were greeted as family,” she said.
Many docents wore black to protest the demise of their beloved program, though museum officials didn’t seem to notice, several said.
Not all of the former volunteers are appeased by the proposed changes.
“If you are shown the door in a house of people who you thought were your friends, would you go back?” asked Irmelle Small of Bethesda, a docent for 40 years who admitted she was ready to stop because the shifts had become too strenuous. “I loved what I saw, I loved what I learned. I don’t think I want to go back.”