After one of Katherine Davis’s tours at the Smart Museum, she gathered her group of two dozen students around Emmanuel Pratt’s wooden art installation outside of the main gallery. To evoke a connection between blues music and the art in the museum, Davis led a call-and-response rendition of “Let the Good Times Roll.” It worked. The whole group clapped, sang, and even danced along. Between Davis’s rich voice and her vibrant energy, this was not your ordinary docent-led museum tour.
Davis is an alumnus of the Odyssey Project, a free one- to two-year education program spanning subjects across the humanities for income-eligible adults who do not have access to higher education. Created by Illinois Humanities Council and facilitated by the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project, the program’s goal is to educate adults and help them find careers in the humanities. Four years ago, the Odyssey Project and the UofC’s Smart Museum of Art started a partnership that allows Odyssey Project graduates to become paid docents at the Smart.
More than half of the Smart Museum docents come from the Odyssey Project (the rest are UofC students). Jason Pallas, the Smart’s Manager of Community Engagement and Arts Learning, said that Odyssey Project docents “provide the most relevant and authentic art experience possible, which is the only way to capture the imagination and inspiration of students.” Davis is just one among many docents bringing their diverse backgrounds and life experiences to the Smart Museum.
Davis grew up singing with her family. She started singing in church at a young age, but took a break when she was young.
“My voice sounded too bluesy; in church that was forbidden. I thought I had insulted God,” she said.
Davis eventually joined the Sherwood Conservatory. She sang professionally for forty years, participated in various Chicago theater companies, and started her own gospel-singing group. She toured most of the world, including Japan, France, Italy, and Turkey, singing blues and opera. After years of singing on tour and teaching blues music in CPS, Davis enrolled in the Odyssey Project.
“I wanted to be educated in my own way,” she said. “My lifestyle didn’t let me stay in a classroom too long.”
The Odyssey Project program not only accommodated Davis, but also helped her find a career that built on her enduring passion for the arts. A year ago, Erika Dudley, Harvard alum and a liaison between the Odyssey Project and the Smart Museum, invited Davis to join the docent program. The Odyssey Project and the Smart handpicked alums who they felt would fit the program well. Davis went to her first meeting at the Smart Museum in September and has been a docent since.
“I love people, I love interacting with people, and I love to entertain,” she said. “Once I got into it, it was like magnets drew me here.”
While studying with the Odyssey Project, Davis went to an art exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art and met Theaster Gates. “When I first saw his art, I looked at it and thought: What?” It looked like ordinary furniture, not what she typically thought of as art. She later learned that the furniture on display at the MCA was made out of materials from a closed-down Wrigley’s chewing-gum factory.
She said she remembered thinking, “How many times did I create something, or I knew somebody that created something, but we didn’t know the value?”
Davis had a similar experience when she first visited the Smart Museum. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t understand this museum,’” she recalled—and realized that children coming from the South Side would likely feel the same way. Davis uses this perspective to help the students on her tours understand the art.
“I break it down: lines, triangle, rectangle, circle. From top to bottom, left to right. From here, the children will start seeing the work as a whole.”
She tries to not only identify with these kids and help them understand the art from their own unique perspectives but also “help kids see themselves in the art.” When Davis tells the students to look for certain things in the art, like an emotion, or the sun, or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and they say “Ooh!,” it reminds her of herself.
When she went to her first meeting at the Smart last September and learned about the role of a docent, she recalled thinking, “It’s the same as music.”
“The museum is the stage where I am featuring all these artists,” she explained, drawing a comparison between being a docent and a performer. Davis continues to question the artwork in the galleries, but she uses this connection between music and visual arts as a way to understand the museum for herself and help her students appreciate the gallery.
“I put [my tours] together like music. Except this is visual arts.” But the museum has its own kind of music: “stories … being told by what they do with a pencil and paper.”
Both the docents from the UofC and those from the Odyssey Project have had training in the humanities, since the curriculum in the Odyssey Project is similar to the UofC’s Core Curriculum. What separates the Odyssey Project docents, however, is their experience growing up in Chicago, which allows them to connect with the students who tour the museum. Davis, for example, grew up in Cabrini-Green. In Jason Pallas’s opinion, the Odyssey Project docents help “leverage relationships with our full audience, not just on campus, but breaking across those historical barriers, into the full, surrounding South Side audience.”
The Smart Museum has free admission, but Pallas is aware that price is not the only factor keeping children from feeling comfortable in museums. He attributed this to “threshold anxiety,” a term he learned from UofC art history professor Darby English.
“Even just coming through the doors, there’s an implicit, invisible, unspoken barrier there,” Pallas explained. “And I think it’s on us to dismantle that, and make this a place that is truly open and welcoming.”
For many students, visiting the Smart is their first experience in a museum. In order to encourage art appreciation and help students feel comfortable in the gallery, docent training at the Smart is unlike that of other museums. While the docents read a lot about the art, most training consists of community-building exercises. Docents let the students do most of the thinking and discovering, using an inquiry-based model to guide the tours.
“Docents don’t tell much of anything,” Pallas said. “It’s a space for the participants to find out the answers.” Instead of giving rigid guidelines for how to give a tour, he asks the docents, “How do you find your authentic voice to give your tour?”
When Davis gives a tour, she’s not looking for any answers. She asks the students what they see and what they think. No matter how strange a piece may seem, or how apprehensive a student may be, Davis forges a connection between the students and the art by starting from the basics.
On one of her afternoon tours a couple weeks ago, she brought fourteen students from Sawyer Elementary into the Smart Museum gallery. She led them to an Yves Klein glass table filled with blue sand in the center of the room. She asked the students to examine the piece—“Start from the top, then the bottom; look at it from all sides. Look at the lines, shapes, colors.”