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BU Art Gallery launches student docent program

Art history majors perform free gallery tours

Jennifer Sichel, (CAS'06), interprets the work of Bill Thompson in "Resurfaced." Photos by Fred Sway.

The quiet BU Art Gallery sprung to life last Wednesday at 3:45 p.m., as visitors arrived in anticipation of a talk by art history major and docent Jennifer Sichel, (CAS’06). The hip crowd of twenty-somethings seemed very much at home at Resurfaced, an exhibition dedicated to challenging the boundaries between painting and sculpture.

Sichel, a self-assured senior, began by discussing what happens to a painting when it is freed from the traditional four-sided frame. Artists working outside the frame, she said, are able to experiment more freely with the play of light and shadow — and the wall itself can become part of how we experience these works in its reception of cast shadow and reflected light.

Sichel did not allow herself to be constrained by the linearity of the gallery walls, instead jumping from work to work as it suited her talk, sometimes across the room and sometimes diagonally. Dialogue was encouraged in the informal presentation. About halfway through, one of the visitors commented that the exhibition seemed to address the transformation of painting into sculpture. What, he wondered, would it look like the other way around?

Energized by the question, Sichel said an example might be a relief or frieze carved into a wall, which could become shallower and shallower; paint could be layered on top to the point that it wouldn’t look like much more than paint built up on the surface.

Sichel’s talk was part of a new docent program started by art history students Leann Rittenbaum (CAS’07) and Beth Pugliano (GRS’06). “It’s really nice just to be able to get a dialogue started about the art in an informal setting outside the classroom,” says Sichel.

The program began when gallery director Stacey McCarroll addressed art history majors at a career day last year. McCarroll mentioned that she’d long wanted to start a docent program, and Rittenbaum came to her soon after with a proposal.

Working under the direction of McCarroll and gallery assistant director Rebeckah Pierson, Rittenbaum and Pugliano researched docent programs offered by other galleries and worked with the public programs coordinator at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. They then trained the BU Art Gallery’s five docents in public speaking and tour techniques, encouraging them to inject their own personality and points of view. Each docent’s presentation is unique.

“It’s a great thing for the gallery because it will help us to reach more students,” says McCarroll. “It’s entirely student-run so it’s all about the students making contact with other students across campus.”

The program began with Resurfaced and will continue with subsequent exhibitions. Resurfaced runs through October 30 at the Art Gallery. Docent tours are conducted Wednesdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and are free and open to the public. Tours will not be held Thanksgiving week.