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Passion for what they do drives Western New York’s army of docents

Andrew Piazza cleans the basement of the Darwin Martin House and weeds its courtyard gardens. He spends an hour and a half washing a “Tree of Life” window, swabbing each of its 750 pieces of art glass with Q-tips soaked in distilled water.

Finally, he shares the passion that motivates his work with visitors to the restored Frank Lloyd Wright house on Jewett Parkway.

“When I give a tour I am in a zone,” said Piazza, a part-time hair stylist. “You’re not thinking about anything else. You must develop your voice, rhythm and style. Each docent brings something different. I’m not satisfied with surface level.”

There are hundreds of docents like Piazza working at cultural and historic sites throughout the region. They serve as ambassadors, tour guides, teachers and caretakers for Buffalo’s cultural institutions, from the Darwin Martin House, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Buffalo Zoo to the region’s historic neighborhoods and natural treasures. And they do it for free.

These men and women devote months of their time to training programs that require research, homework assignments, tests and evaluations.

Docents make all the difference in the world to a person looking at a piece of art, said Mary Therrien, a docent at the Albright-Knox for seven years.

“The average person looks at a work for seconds,” Therrien said. “We get them to look differently, more deeply. We have background stories. We have details.”

Effective speakers

Guided tours are popping up all over Buffalo’s waterfront and downtown, and in its labyrinth of neighborhoods. Conducted on kayaks, bicycles, boats, water bikes, paddle boards, buses and on foot, many of the tours are led by the 95 docents of Explore Buffalo.

This month, 160 tours will be led by Explore Buffalo docents, who will take visitors to “Elevator Alley” on kayak, along Delaware Avenue for “Millionaire’s Row” and through Allentown on a “Mob Tour.”

Explore Buffalo formed in June 2013 with 45 docents, said Chuck LaChiusa, president of the group’s board of directors. After two 11-week training programs, the group added another 50 docents.

“Our people paid $50 for training,” LaChiusa said. “They come out very knowledgeable in terms of history and architecture. Many of them have never been public speakers, and they become effective speakers. For the past two winters, when we give relatively few tours, our docents give history talks at First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle.”

Tour writers draw heavily from Buffalo Architecture and History, a mammoth website compiled by LaChiusa that spotlights the city’s rich inventory of buildings and historic sites.

Not all of downtown’s distinctive structures can be accessed by tours, LaChiusa noted. You won’t see the inside of Old County Hall at 92 Franklin St., for example.

“And there’s a lot to be seen,” LaChiusa said. “That’s where President McKinley was laid out. The courtroom where Leon Czolgosz went on trial is almost intact from 1901. We’d love to have tours there but it’s not practical because of the security. It takes too long for people to go through the metal detectors.”

‘Teaching’ visitors

Docents do not lecture at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, said Mary Marino Kozub, manager of education, outreach and tours.

“We engage the audience in a conversation,” she said. “Since our museum changes dramatically and constantly, tours can’t be scripted.”

The fifty docents at the Burchfield treat the museum like a classroom, “teaching” visitors about the art and artists of Western New York, as well as the insight of Charles E. Burchfield. The two-hour 22-week training session is founded on inquiry-based touring techniques, Kozub said. Docents are expected to lead two tours a month, and engage in imaginative ekphrastic writing.

“Our docents tend to be older,” Kozub said. “But working with art keeps them young.”

Burchfield Penney will start a new docent training class in the fall. A few slots remain open.

Albright-Knox’s six-month training program has been called the equivalent of a graduate course in art history by some of the docents.

“There’s a lot more going on than you think in terms of opportunities for people to engage in culture with the help of docents,” Therrien said. “I do corporate tours, school tours – which are themed and cover grades K to 12 – college tours and tours for sight-impaired adults.”

Therrien wrote about a tour where she showed fifth graders artist Mark Rothko’s glowing “Orange and Yellow.” Therrien asked the students if any would hang the piece in their bedroom, and one boy responded: “I want it directly across from my bed. When I wake up in the morning, I’ll see a sunrise (yellow), and when I go to bed at night I’ll see a sunset (orange).”

Typical tours at the Albright are done without notes.

“You are working with the art,” Therrien explained.

Therrien also volunteers for the Museum Education Consortium of Buffalo, a collaboration of Buffalo galleries and museums. MECOB was started in 1972 by the education department heads of five cultural institutions to enhance programming for teachers and students. It has since expanded its scope, and counts 11 non-profit cultural organizations in the area as collaborators.

Therrien recently finished a four-year term as director for the National Docent Symposium, an organization dedicated to providing an ongoing forum for the education of docents.

“Docents may train anywhere from a few months to three years before they start touring,” Therrien said. “The skills needed to be a successful docent are much like good teaching: good group management, time management, flexibility, knowledge, love of subject matter, sincerity and enthusiasm.”

To gauge the importance of docents, consider the 1,200 volunteers at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The rigorous training for “accepted” applicants requires a three-year commitment, which includes Friday evening trainings and additional Saturday sessions. The activity is popular: right now, no applications are being accepted for the museum’s guided tour program.

Explaining wildlife

At the Buffalo Zoo, 142 docents learn about animal characteristics and ecology. The docents’ functions include leading group tours, interpreting biofacts and explaining wildlife conservation messages. Docents may be trained as animal handlers to participate in outreach programs, said Maureen Pantera, volunteer coordinator.

The training program runs 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on 14 Saturdays from January to May.

“There is homework every week. The training manual is massive,” Pantera said. “It has more than 500 pages and contains fact sheets for every animal, more than 120 species.”

A recent docent class included retired engineers, registered nurses and a social worker. Their ages ranged from 25 to 70.

“They’re worth $22 an hour,” Pantera said. “We could not function without them.”