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Tours return with gallery guides

The Chazen Museum of Art has restarted gallery tours with a renewed program offering a more diverse group of guides, along with the chance for more dialogue and deeper exploration of artworks.

The program now consists of six guides—three students and three adult community members.  “Representation matters,” said Candie Waterloo, the Chazen’s head of museum education. “Who you see greeting you in a museum says a lot about if you will be coming back. Part of it was about shifting to be more inclusive about who our audience is.”

There have been a few tours each week so far, with demand gradually picking up after the pandemic cancelled tours for three years. “We’re intentionally starting small, because it is an experiment, and will build the program up over time according to need,” Waterloo said. The first tours with the new guides began in January. They’ve been a mix of school-age children, visitors from senior centers, and other groups.

Although the Chazen has recently started drop-in tours on occasional Sundays, most tours are requested by groups. Guides strive to adapt tour content to the group and keep tour size under ten, to allow for more dialogue and interaction.

Guides were hired in fall semester and trained extensively, including gallery walkthroughs where each guide took turns presenting and their peers offered feedback and suggestions. Chazen guides also take one shift each week as a visitor services assistant in the galleries, which exposes them to the questions museum goers are asking about the exhibitions and permanent collections.

One of the new tour guides is Becca Owen, a PhD student in art history who’s also working on a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies. Owen, who uses they/them pronouns, is working in their third role at the Chazen, having served as a curatorial assistant and visitor services assistant. Owen says they’ve known they wanted to be a museum curator since age 17.

“I used to make art, I still do sometimes,” they said. “But when I got to take an art history class in high school, I realized that really what really excites me is thinking about art, writing about art, talking about art, getting other people excited about art.”

When Owen has a tour of younger students, they try to involve more hands-on activities like drawing, or in the case of looking at sculpture, providing a piece of marble that students can touch. With tours of high schoolers or adults, Owen presents open-ended questions to the group after providing just enough information to get conversation going.

Owen stressed that museum tours are for everyone, whether from UW–Madison classes, elementary schools, senior citizen groups, book groups, or those with other affiliations throughout the community. “We would love to take you on a tour that’s relevant to your group or class,” they said. “Tours are for everybody of all different ages and different backgrounds, and no matter what you’re interested in, we can tailor an experience to match.”

Another guide, Ann Schaffer, is a retired psychotherapist who began pursuing an art degree in her 30s, eventually completing an MFA in painting. She worked at the Kohler Art Library and began volunteering at the Chazen about four years ago. “What I like now about being a guide is that it takes my skill sets, relating to people and loving art, and brings those together, so that people who come to the museum can have a relationship with the art and have a real connection to our museum and to art itself.”

In the past, Schaffer said, a one-hour tour at the Chazen might have covered seven or eight art works. Now guides are focusing on only three or four works to allow more time to absorb and reflect on the art.

“We have lots of activities that we do that engage them with the art. We’ll have them draw where they would put themselves in the painting,” she said. “Or we’ll have them do a wonderful exercise called See, Think, Wonder, where they look first, and then they think about what it is that they’re seeing, and then we ask what questions they would have.”

Request a group tour here.