Since 1976, Dorothy Colban has spent countless hours in the galleries of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, sharing her love and knowledge of modern art with schoolchildren, international visitors and anyone else who stopped by.
She and other volunteer docents would go to the museum for docent training sessions, gallery talks and to give tours. The group collected dues and went on trips to see exhibitions at other museums. They traveled to Europe and built friendships around their passion for art.
But Colban is no longer making weekly trips from her Manassas home. Museum officials told the Hirshhorn’s 25 longtime volunteer docents that their services are no longer needed.
The Hirshhorn disbanded its docent program in August and replaced it with a new Gallery Guides initiative that is similar to the internship program it also ran. As a result, many of the docents, who are retired, are for the most part being replaced with younger volunteers who are interested in museum careers. Without even a proper thank you, the docents say they have been robbed of one of life’s great pleasures.
“What I’m going to miss the most are the de Koonings, and [Julian] Schnabel’s ‘Portrait of Andy Warhol,’ ” Colban said, referring to pieces from the Hirshhorn collection. “I’ll miss not seeing them all the time.”
Hirshhorn officials say the change was needed to keep up with the times. Visitors don’t want formal tours anymore; they want casual interactions with staff who can talk about the work and ‘help them understand it better. And guides need to be in the gallery frequently to do this well.
Kristy Maruca, the museum’s manager of education, described the change as a merger of the docents and “interpretive guides,” a group of four younger volunteers who work 12 hours a week, some for college credit. She received 20 applications for the first four-month Gallery Guide cycle, which requires volunteers work 15 hours a week. Ten were accepted, including three students earning college credit. So far, three have dropped out.
“It’s the best thing for our visitors,” Maruca explained, adding that she no longer has the time to run both programs. “It’s one of those tough decisions.”
Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough was not informed of the decision, which he called “a little unusual.” The Hirshhorn is part of the Smithsonian.
“You have to make changes from time to time, because knowledge changes and technology changes,” Clough said. “But you have to respect people for what they’ve given and you have to do these things very gently and with due respect.”
A Hirshhorn spokesman said the museum’s two previous interim directors, Kerry Brougher and Elizabeth Duggal, now deputy director, signed off on the plan.
“This was not taken lightly. The team took lots of advice,” said Duggal, who added that the docents were encouraged to apply for the new program, or to volunteer as desk assistants. “The whole point is to think about what’s best for our visitors. It’s a more diverse group. They bring multiple perspectives.”
The docents were dismissed a month before new director Melissa Chiu took the reins of the institution, which was rocked by staff and board turnover after previous director Richard Koshalek’s plan to build an inflatable structure known as the bubble fell apart. Budget cuts and declining attendance have also hurt.
Chiu’s arrival — at the beginning of the Hirshhorn’s 40th anniversary celebration — was supposed to herald a new era. Instead, there’s confusion and hurt feelings among some of the museum’s most devoted supporters.
“It was done in a very rude, very uncouth way,” said Florence Brodkey of Arlington, a docent for 12 years who said the volunteers were called to a meeting in August and told of the changes that would go into effect the next month. “It was disrespectful and insensitive.”
“There are women who are still there from the first class of docents, lots of old-timers who love the collection and love the museum,” said Laurie Nakamoto of Arlington, a docent for 35 years.
The docents say the museum has gradually come to ignore the program. The last class of docents was accepted and trained in 2010. Continuing education sessions have been reduced or eliminated, and several years ago the docents were told they would no longer be trained to give tours of the special exhibitions. Those shows were reserved for the interpretive guides.
Volunteers are valuable assets. In the District, a volunteer hour is worth $38.69, according to the Independent Sector, a national coalition of nonprofit companies and foundations. Volunteers often become donors, too, another reason organizations try not to alienate them.
Maruca, however, said the average docent volunteers just a few hours a month. Only three were willing to work on the weekends. Some docents were serving as mentors to the interpretative guides, a job that required a bigger time commitment. And two former docents are among the new Gallery Guides, Maruca said as proof that the plan is working.
But that leaves more than 20 docents without an opportunity to volunteer because they can’t commit to the arbitrary minimum of 15 hours a week.
“What museum asks a volunteer for 15 hours a week? Most people don’t have the time to give almost a half-time job every week,” Nakamoto said.
Lois Kuter, who heads the American Association for Museum Volunteers, said museums regularly wrestle with decisions involving volunteers. But this change is too drastic.
“Fifteen hours a week, that eliminates most of the volunteer population,” said Kuter, manager of volunteer services at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. “That’s a tough sell.”
The new program has increased the number of hours of gallery help, according to Maruca. The seven Gallery Guides volunteer 105 hours a week, compared to about 58 hours of volunteering from the docents and the four interpretive guides.
But several docents said they would have given more hours if asked.
“We were given less and less,” said Lisa Ney of Winchester, who has volunteered at the Hirshhorn since 1980. “It was a disaster for the staff and the docents.”
Several docents said the new program is just a renaming of the interpretive guides, who Maruca preferred. “With us, it’s like talking to her mother,” Colban said. “When we started, we were all in our 30s and 40s. The new (guides) are younger.”
Many other Smithsonian museums continue to have docent programs like the one the Hirshhorn disbanded. The National Air and Space Museum is recruiting for a docent class that will begin training in the fall of 2015. After completing 11 weeks of training, volunteers must agree to sign on for two years of at least eight hours a month in the galleries. The Freer and Sackler Galleries just recruited a new docent class that will train from September until next June. After passing a qualifying tour next summer, docents must commit to two years of at least 24 tours a year, as well as attending two-hour training sessions several times a month. The National Museum of African Art asks docents to give 60 hours a year; the National Postal Museum requires 20 hours a year and a two-year commitment. The National Museum of American History offers weekday and weekend docent programs that require a year commitment and one 90-minute shift each week or two weekend shifts a month.
All have separate internship programs that require more time and offer potential college credit.
That’s probably the best approach, Kuter said. But if museum staff is too taxed to run both, she said change must be done with grace and gratitude.
“They need to find another role, one that’s prestigious, that’s not a step down,” she said. “You have to take care that you’re not just throwing them out the door.”