UNEXPECTED. That reaction often describes a visit to the Aspen Art Museum (AAM), and not always because of the art. Chances are that viewers wandering the galleries of the museum will have someone approach them unbidden and engage with them about an exhibit or installation.
“We are trying to make people comfortable with contemporary art and engage with visitors in new ways,” says Heidi Zuckerman, the Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and director of the AAM, adding that the museum’s innovative Guide program “subverts expectations and therefore has a greater impact.
It’s an innovation born of necessity. When the new AAM was unveiled in Aspen’s downtown core in August 2014, the museum faced many new staffing issues, having more than tripled in size from its old location. It needed more security, as well as a robust visitor service department. Realizing that the staff in the galleries would have the most contact with visitors, Zuckerman decided to combine the two departments. Instead of the accustomed security guards sitting on a stool in the corner of a gallery, she employs Guides, trained by the curatorial staff, who are encouraged to share information about the art with visitors.
The theory is that it may be less intimidating and more approachable to have a Guide in the gallery informing you about the art than a formal docent or curator on a tour. Zuckerman deliberately chose the title “guide” as opposed to “guard” because the term is familiar and consistent with the Aspen vernacular. “In Aspen, people hire biking guides, fishing guides, rafting guides,” she says. “They associate the word ‘guide’ with someone who is informed and skilled and will help in a friendly and accessible way.”
Zuckerman herself interviews every Guide before they are hired, looking for applicants who are open-minded, are creative, and have an appreciation for structure. Most of all, she wants to ensure that the Guides love their jobs and understand their role.
The community’s response has been resounding: Zuckerman says she has received many comments about the Guide program, all of them positive. So on your next visit to the AAM, instead of silently pondering the artworks on your own, make the effort to engage with one of the Guides in the galleries—it may change your experience completely.