Ownership: Making the Woodson Your Art Museum

By: Catie Anderson, curator of education on June 4th, 2014

How can we nurture engagement and foster loyalty in our visitors? How can we engender in our volunteers a sense of pride in the Woodson Art Museum? These and other big-picture ideas and lofty aspirations take shape in various ways here – inclusive public programs accessible to all, enthusiastic and passionate staff, dynamic exhibitions, and pleasing public spaces, to name a few.

These are notions I consider when working with new volunteer greeters and docents and this spring has been filled with many volunteer training sessions. In addition to teaching incoming docents about Museum collections or art interpretation, it’s important to communicate our underlying identity: a thoughtful, progressive, and barrier-free institution that seeks to enhance lives through art for all visitors and the north central Wisconsin communities it serves. If I ever doubt whether this message is sinking in, I need look no further than the conversations I have with our volunteers.

Two docents pose with two Museum staff members during training on June 4, 2014.

Museum staff members and new volunteer docents during a training session this week 

I, rather sheepishly, was reminded of our volunteers’ perceptiveness during a recent group visit to the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in West Bend that included Woodson docents and greeters. Interactions during a guided-gallery tour of temporary exhibitions and permanent collections, a round-table discussion with MOWA docents, and conversations throughout the day all reinforced for me the strength of the Woodson’s volunteers.

They inquired into the training and logistics of the MOWA volunteer program and made astute observations of works on view – connecting what they saw to the Woodson and musing over the similarities and differences between the two Wisconsin art museums. I was so impressed by their dedication and keen insights into the realms of museum interpretation and art appreciation. Clearly, these men and women – our volunteers – are proud, informed, and engaged.

Volunteers on May, 2014 MOWA trip

Museum volunteers enjoy MOWA galleries during a recent trip.


Relationships between staff and volunteers can be complex and challenging. We have high expectations for one another. Meeting those expectations requires time and patience to ensure we are fulfilling one another’s needs for the greater good of the institution and to exceed visitor expectations. Volunteer interactions can be fleeting; we communicate during training and as we pass between programs and meetings. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend time with greeters and docents at a more leisurely pace during the recent trip. I certainly was impressed by MOWA staff, volunteers, and facilities, but my real takeaway was the assurance that Woodson Art Museum volunteers are proud of their Museum and take their roles as ambassadors, advocates, and meaning-makers seriously.

Try as I might to communicate commitment and passion, those are concepts that can’t be incorporated into a handout or assignment. However, I now know that important message clearly does get through.

Volunteer Docent Linda Haney MFTA experience, Gromme gallery 2012

A Museum docent leads a Making Friends Through Art experience amid artwork from the Museum’s collection.

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