Gallery Guides with Sofia Ortega-Guerrero

Graphic by Laura Padilla-Castellanos

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.

I didn’t grow up going to art museums, or any museums really, excluding the occasional school trip. Growing up in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, strings of papel picado were my Alexander Calders, the color-covered walls by the dentist’s office my Diego Riveras. Like many children of immigrants, I longed to know my parents’ home country, letting my imagination and the painted worlds of public artwork build the Mexico that undocumented statuses kept estranged. Kaleidoscopic murals recorded stories of displacement shared among neighbors. Beyond informing my cultural identity and coloring my childhood memories, Fruitvale’s street art sparked the interests that shape my studies today. It made me cognizant of art’s capacity for storytelling and passionate about making museum spaces welcoming.

During Bulldog Days, I decided on Yale while standing in front of the University Art Gallery’s Lion Relief from the Processional Way. Art museums had always existed in my mind as sacred, untouchable spaces reserved only for the rare occasions worthy of a visit. But at Yale, I could go from hanging out in an Old Campus common room to sharing a space with centuries-old ceramics in a matter of minutes. Participating in the Gallery Guide program, I have been able to not only take advantage of this privilege of proximity, but work towards helping others build connections with the YUAG as well. During our first year of training, Gallery Guides work with curators and other museum staff to learn about the YUAG’s collection and develop thematic, discussion-based, four-object tours. While tours vary vastly across Guides, the message remains the same: spend time with the art. 

Whether writing research papers or guiding tour groups, I have spent hours looking at the objects I present. Still, I am continually surprised by how fluid these seemingly fixed and static artworks can be. While their brushstrokes or carvings may stay (generally) in the same places, the objects’ meanings are capable of shifting and adapting to contemporary relevance when we look more closely, more frequently.

The first tour I designed was focused on this very capacity. Titled “Perspectives,” my set of objects invited YUAG visitors to consider the term in both a literal and figurative sense. Titus Kaphar’s Another Fight for Remembrance, the object upon which I built my theme, deals with being both an actor in and a viewer of a depicted scene. The piece was painted from a photograph captured during the 2014 Ferguson protests that followed the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer. The flash in the central figure’s eyes and the wash of light over his form place us in the role of the photographer. Yet, we confront the enormity of the painting and the systemic problem it alludes to from a quiet, white-walled gallery. Kaphar forces us to reckon with our role as viewers and—potentially—inactive bystanders. 

Images courtesy of Sofia Ortega-Guerrero

In my next two objects, Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave and Diego Velázquez’ The Education of the Virgin, the conversation begins to address the diverse, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives that we as viewers with particular and pre-formed sets of beliefs can impose on a single artwork. At the fourth and final stop of my tour, Ogawa Machiko’s Round Vessel with a Torn Mouth prompts reflection on how our perceptions of an object may evolve when we allow ourselves the time to look closely. At this final stop, I have had some of my favorite experiences as a Gallery Guide.

Leading a large group through the museum on one of my first tours, I aimed to weave every voice into the conversation, a challenge that often grows with the size of the crowd. As we moved from object to object, I noticed a tall man, attentive but quiet, lingering toward the back of the group. I wondered how I might encourage him to participate in the developing dialogue. Once we arrived at the tour’s last object, the Machiko, I presented it as usual: first from afar, then up close. Usually, by the time I invite visitors to walk up to the vessel and peek inside, most of them have already built an assumption about it. Expecting to only find more of the asymmetric pot’s seemingly-fragile and unglazed material, they are met with an interior of glimmering glass fractals. Their entire understanding of the object shifts. Once the large group had settled down, I prompted the conversation with a question about this shift. I looked to where the man sat to find a huge smile stretched across his face, and he began to excitedly speed through his thoughts. As a Gallery Guide, nothing is more rewarding than witnessing these “aha” moments––the instance an artwork clicks, and the gallery becomes a setting comfortable enough for a person to contribute their opinions and observations.

In an internship application, I was once asked to pick a time in which I had felt myself completely changed by art, but I could not gather enough brain cells to write about a single, coherent memory. I realized that this wasn’t just because I was trying to panic-submit multiple applications during shopping period, but because I have found that every experience with art informs the next. Artworks can be vignettes spanning mediums, dimensions, colors, and cultures that come together to contextualize and immortalize our histories. Moving through galleries, time-traveling and continent-hopping between rooms, we can learn to immerse ourselves in stories both familiar and unfamiliar. Art museums have the ability and responsibility to validate and empower our narratives––particularly those that have been historically underrepresented and misrepresented. And inhabiting these spaces, whether with co-workers or newly-acquainted strangers, we can learn to cultivate our empathy and expand beyond the confines of our individual perspectives.

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