The Gallery Guide program at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) provides Yale undergraduates with the opportunity to learn to teach from objects in the museum’s robust collection and share their research with the public. Guides present four works of art connected by a theme through interactive, close-looking Highlights Tours for the public.
Nyeda S., PC ’22, interviewed Chloé Glass, TD ’22, a History of Art major and Education Studies scholar with a Certificate of Advanced Language Study in French. Glass began working as a Gallery Guide as a first year in Fall 2017 and has since created and led over 45 highlights tours for the public.
NS: What do you enjoy about your job? Why did you seek it out?
CG: I grew up visiting museums, looking closely at works of art and talking with my family about the narratives, emotions, landscapes, and minute details the artist depicted in the work. I love diving into a canvas and imagining myself in the scene, learning to read the painting as though it is a chapter in a novel. There’s a misconception that analysing works of art is only for art historians or artists; but in fact, visual analysis primarily requires curiosity and patience and teaches skills that are useful for everyone. Close looking also provides the opportunity to go beyond surface level interpretations to appreciate narratives and connections that might have escaped someone’s notice at first glance.
When I heard that the Yale University Art Gallery offered students the chance to become Gallery Guides and create and lead their own tours for the public, I was so excited I applied for the job even before I moved into my dorm room! Once I began training in Fall 2017, our twice-weekly sessions quickly became the highlight of my week. I loved discussing works of art with my fellow guides and learning about audience engagement and visual literacy strategies together. Crafting and leading Highlights Tours for the public is an immense pleasure, and I love seeing the personal connections that visitors develop with the objects. It’s so rewarding when my returning visitors tell me they discover something new about the collections each time. I also started an Instagram account (@thoughtsofagalleryguide) to share my observations and thoughts about works of art across various museum collections with a wider audience.
The Gallery Guide program provides students opportunities to not only become more involved with the YUAG but also with museum education in general. For example, I’ve participated in conversations between guide programs at Mt. Holyoke College and Williams College, have taken over the YUAG’s Instagram account (@yaleartgallery) to highlight certain works in the museum’s collection, and have been part of the Programs Advisory Committee to provide input on the Gallery’s programs. I’ve also been able to experience different Art Gallery educational programs, such as leading a tour for blind veterans and reading stories in French and English for the Stories in Art program for young children.
Glass having a discussion with visitors about Fukami Sueharu’s 1985 porcelain piece “View of the Distant Sea II” on a Highlights Tour, May 2018. Image courtesy of Chloé Glass.
NS: What have you learned during your experience as a Gallery Guide?
CG: The YUAG’S Highlights Tours are unique because of their conversational style. As Gallery Guides, we do not present our information in a lecture style; instead, we engage audiences in an exchange based on looking closely at a work of art. Imagine we are on the second floor of the Gallery in front of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting “Bob’s Steer Head.” I ask you, “What do you see?” You might respond with “a skull” or “lots of tan colors” or “it looks dusty and hot.” I would pick one of these observations and ask the group to expand on it; “What do you notice about the skull specifically?” You might notice the way the skull’s horns push against the sides of the canvas, or the lines down the forehead that look like tear tracks, or the piece of decaying fur and flesh resting on the head. As we continue looking closely together, I would tell you more about O’Keeffe’s life: for example, how she fell in love with the landscapes of New Mexico and would sometimes ship bleached desert bones back to her studio in New York. After 15 minutes, we would move to the next object in the tour.
Leading a dynamic conversation in front of works of art with a large group of adults requires flexibility and confidence, which also means being comfortable not knowing the answer to a question. The skills I’ve gained from leading Highlights Tours have carried over to other aspects of my life as well; my public speaking has improved and I’m more comfortable giving presentations in front of classmates, my visual analysis skills have taught me how to more closely analyse literary passages, and crafting a cohesive tour theme has allowed me to draw deeper connections in my other classes
NS: Take us on your tour (briefly).
CG: My first Highlights Tour focused on still lifes, and while I loved the objects I had chosen, I realized that only two of the artists I had included thus far were women. The Yale University Art Gallery, like many museums, is overwhelmingly filled with works by white male artists. This inequality was treated as the norm and I did not see it explicitly challenged. With my current tour, I try to bring attention to the artists who are less represented in the Gallery’s collections but nonetheless have made valuable contributions to art historical discourse. To this end, for the past year, I have included only works by women on my tours.
Glass wearing a Halloween costume while standing in front of Calder’s mobile at the YUAG, October 2019 Photo by Jordan Smolski. Image courtesy of Chloé Glass.
For example, my current tour starts in the ground floor African Art gallery in front of a 1995 terracotta ceramic by Kenyan-born British artist Magdalene Odundo. Most visitors are surprised by the sculptural qualities of the black vase’s rounded bottom and elongated curved spout; many have said it resembles a heart or a pumpkin with a stem. Then in the Asian Art gallery on the second floor, we look at the 2006 ceramic by Japanese artist Ogawa Machiko. A gash across the top of the bowl-shaped ceramic reveals sparkling glass within and alludes to the object’s title “Round vessel with a torn mouth.” Later we move to the American Art galleries on the third floor and O’Keeffe’s 1936 painting of a bleached steer’s skull. While this piece could be classified as a still life, the emotion that O’Keeffe imparts to the skull through the careful placement of the toupée-like fur and empty eye sockets let it speak as a portrait. We end in the Modern and Contemporary gallery in front of Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu’s larger-than-life humanoid sculpture from 2018. Titled “Sentinel I,” this figure stands tall in the middle of the gallery, its torso and limbs composed of concrete, paper pulp, and curved branches. We connect these works by discussing the artist’s interpretations and treatments of the body. At the end of the tour, I want visitors to realize with surprise that we’ve only looked at works by women.
NS: How does your tour align with or inform your interests?
CG: My experiences at the YUAG and my academic interests in Art History completely inform each other. Georgia O’Keeffe’s still life “Bob’s Steer Head” was the first work of art that I included on my first Highlights Tour and now I will be writing my senior Art History thesis on another one of O’Keeffe’s works in the YUAG’s collection.
While my Gallery Guide training provided me with the opportunity to hear from Gallery curators about their considerations for object display in the permanent collection galleries, I wanted to know more about the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into creating an exhibition. So last summer with support from a Yale fellowship, I worked at the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Centre Pompidou), in Paris, France with curator Dr. Aurélie Verdier as she planned a retrospective exhibition on Henri Matisse. Working alongside her gave me insight into curatorial efforts and inspired me to become more interested in a curatorial career.
My position as a Gallery Guide has also let me be involved in conversations aimed at making museums more equitable and inclusive. Earlier this summer, I was part of a group of Gallery Guides who drafted a statement asking that the Yale University Art Gallery dedicate itself to being actively anti-racist on a number of fronts. We were then invited to speak with the Gallery’s Director and the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access task force. Being a part of these conversations has made me more passionate about pursuing a museum career so that one day I can open these conversations to others and create more equitable and accessible cultural heritage spaces together. I’m planning to apply to graduate school so that I may pursue a curatorial career and address these issues.
NS: What’s your favorite memory as a Gallery Guide?
CG: I really enjoy our annual Halloween Gallery Guide training where we all dress up as works of art from the Gallery! Last year, I recreated the Alexander Calder mobile in the 20th century American Paintings gallery from a coat hanger and pieces of construction paper. It’s so fun to see what the other guides come dressed as and then to walk through the Gallery together to match the costume to the work of art!