Docents Look Back on 40+ Years at SAAM

Docents Susanne Joyner (left) and Phoebe Kline (right) reminisce in SAAM's Kogod Courtyard.

Every day, SAAM's nearly 130 volunteer docents share their knowledge and love of American art with the public through highlights tours, school field trips, outreach, videoconferencing, and more. Eye Level sat down with two of our longest-serving docents, Phoebe Kline and Susanne Joyner, to hear their reflections on the ways the Museum has changed, highlights of its history, and what keeps them engaged.

Eye Level: When did you both become docents?

Phoebe Kline: I became a docent in 1974.

Susanne Joyner: And I started in 1976.

EL: So, over the last 40 years or so that you've been docents at the museum, what are some of the biggest changes you've seen?

SJ: The Kogod Courtyard, which I think is fabulous. The most exciting thing to me was when ... high school students would come in for four weeks for a print workshop. And at the end of the school year they had an exhibit, and they had the award ceremony here. I still think of that and our courtyard.

PK: We used to have what we called children's days. We only did it once a year. It was a big, big deal, and basically docent-run. And we had it in the courtyard, where local artists were very happy to give a day over to exposing kids to art.

SJ: We worked very hard! We had a lot of responsibilities.

EL: Do either of you have a favorite artwork you show people on tours?

SJ: Yes, Hans Hofmann's Fermented Soil. If it's up, that's my ultimate favorite. It begs the question, you know, "what color is dirt?" I like it because I can get a really great dialogue out of it.

PK: I love the Hugo Robus sculpture, One and Another. I really have so much fun with that piece. After we talk about how the bodies are not really touching and how the negative space is as important as the mass in that piece, we begin to think about why he called it One and Another. And with the kids, I always say, well, you know, we all have one experience, and that is being part of our mother. But once we're out in the world, we're a separate being. We're the other. And maybe that's what he's getting at.

EL: What about favorite exhibitions?

SJ: The one I like the best was The West as America.

PK: The West as America was very comprehensive. And it was before its time. I really enjoyed Virginia Mecklenburg's exhibition, Metropolitan Lives, because it brought so many works to us that were classics of the Ashcan School. The 1934 show was great, too. People loved that. A lot of older people remembered that time from their childhood.

SJ: I thought video artist Nam June Paik's exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary was a fun show, too.

PK: It was! And I loved The Singing and the Silence! I thought that was a mind-blower. People were just in love with that show.

EL: Is there a particularly memorable experience that stands out from your time here?

PK: In 1976 there was a retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg. He came to the opening and the museum was crammed with people.

SJ: I saw a woman, I swear she had a dead bird on her forehead, dangling...

PK: Because of his combines, people came to that opening in just incredible outfits.

SJ: It was the craziest show you've ever seen. You're right, Phoebe. And I had just become a docent!

PK: We were both really new to the program. And, man, that made an impression. Probably nothing has made an impression quite like that, except for WONDER . I think WONDER was a fantastic show.

EL: What keeps this job interesting for you?

SJ: The learning.

PK: I think Susanne is right, the opportunity to self-educate is really a great draw. You know, I'd like to be magnanimous, and say, oh, it's the opportunity to serve the public, but it's also just plain fun! And we have wonderful people to work with, and it's interesting to see how curators' minds work when they put up a new exhibition. And it is always changing.

Are you interested in volunteering at SAAM? There are a number of ways to get involved. Check out our volunteer page for more information.