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Caren Hackman Takes Us On A Behind-The-Scenes Tour With Norton Museum Docent Jo-Anne Weingarden

The Rickie Report takes you behind the scenes into the life of a museum docent with Jo-Anne Weingarden.  We thank Caren Hackman for interviewing Jo-Anne and taking some photos at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL.  While her path was not straightforward, we wend our way into a deeper understanding of what it means to lead a group into the vast collection of art and special exhibits.  Enjoy this interview and some peeks.





“What started as a journey to learn more about art for her personal purchase became a passion that has never waned”.





Jo-Anne Weingarden at Olafur Eliasson’s Cosmic Gaze at the Norton Museum of Art



Jo-Anne Weingarden and her husband wanted to buy some artwork for their home, but they wanted to know exactly what they were buying; not just pieces that might match their sofa. To help with this purchase, the couple decided to take classes to learn more about art.  And so began a life’s journey that led Jo-Anne to a 40-year career as a docent, first at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), and now for the Norton Museum of Art. What started as a journey to learn more about art for her personal purchase became a passion that has never waned.




Jo-Anne Weingarden with Constantin Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany at the Norton Museum




While taking classes, Jo-Anne was also facing being an empty-nester; as her youngest child headed off to college. That was when someone suggested she investigate becoming a docent. She ended up applying to the DIA, one of the largest art museums in the United States. Taking this chance led to 25 years of a wonderful and interesting volunteer experience. “The museum has an encyclopedic collection and when you walk past all the art history and textbooks, the walls became alive,” she said.



Becoming a docent isn’t a simple journey – it was two years of intensive study at the DIA. In addition, being a docent obviously required public speaking skills, of which Jo-Anne had a life-long fear. She was so shy that while working as a substitute teacher in previous years, “I would eat in my classroom rather than with the other teachers.”  But, in her evolution from mother and substitute teacher to docent, Jo-Anne conquered her shyness and has become a proficient speaker to art enthusiasts of all ages, from children through adults, to art newbies, to connoisseurs.




Jo-Anne Weingarden with Yinka Shonibare  “Le Meduse” at The Norton Museum




While JoAnn and her husband, Jerry, visited major international art galleries in earlier years, it was during her studies that she gained a true appreciation. “Our first trip to Italy was in 1969. We had been to the Prado and the Uffizi museums, but it’s one thing to walk through and only have your basic knowledge to relate to; it’s another to have a rich educational background when seeing the actual art again. Art is a product of the times and can be appreciated at all levels. It’s sort of like going to Disney World. There are so many levels to experience and enjoy”. 



“Learning is continuous for docents, especially when the museum hosts special exhibits or assimilates new work into the permanent collection”.



When the Weingardens moved to Palm Beach County from Detroit, a friend suggested Jo-Anne volunteer as a docent at the Norton Museum of Art. At the Norton, due to her past education and experience from the DIA, Jo-Anne was given permission to skip over some of the basics of art history and begin her new docent education of the Norton collections. Learning is continuous for docents, especially when the museum hosts special exhibits or assimilates new work into the permanent collection. However, even as a new docent, Jo-Anne feels that while the learning is very time consuming, “It is always extremely rewarding. You continue to learn as you attend classes with and guide a new group of docents through the process.” 




Jo-Anne Weingarden with Nosadella “Madonna and Child in Glory” at Norton Museum



JoAnn explained that the Norton’s docent training is ever-evolving and that Glenn Tomlinson, the curator of education, is a strong proponent of the inquiry method, which is based on a program developed by Philip Yenawine, creator of “Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS),” method of arts education.”  “When I started at the DIA, I was trained in the inquiry method, which was not really well-known at the time in the museum world. The inquiry method requires the docent to engage the group, not to lecture to them. You interact on all levels. Jo-Anne has mentored future docents with some of these same methods and techniques that she was previously taught.




“The inquiry method requires the docent to engage the group, not to lecture to them. You interact on all levels. Visiting a museum involves more of a conversation between visitor and artwork”.




Visiting a museum involves more of a conversation between visitor and artwork. Using the VTS method, docents engage visitors. The docent introduction should be brief, then offer a relatable “hook” to help the visitor become more involved in the exhibit. “It’s our job to have the ideas and a list of possible questions to help visitors form their own responses, to interact and make each experience their own.”  Docents ask leading questions to spearhead into another question, such as, “What do you notice? What makes you say that? Who else thinks they see the same thing?”  Followed by, “What does that mean?”, or “Where did that person come from?”, or “Where do you think you could find that information?”  Optimally a docent would like each visitor to have at least three take-away concepts about a work of art.




Jo-Anne Weingarden with Jose Bedia’s “If Only I Could” At the Norton Museum




When a new exhibit is scheduled to be installed at the Norton Museum of Art, docents are offered an “avalanche” of material. They begin preparing for the new exhibit a week to several weeks before it even opens to the public. There’s no examination to pass, however preparation is intense, involving slide shows, written texts, discussions, walk-throughs with the show’s curator, the designer, or someone who is closely involved in the exhibition and knows it well. After reviewing all the documents and materials for the new exhibit, each docent personally creates a tour that maximizes his/her own talents but is not scripted. 




When Jo-Anne begins a tour, she assesses her group. Sometimes she is faced with blank disinterested looks but has always come up with an interesting starter or that “hook”. For example, when kicking off a DIA tour with a group of disinterested teens (arms crossed on their chests), JoAnn would ask, “How many of you have been to an auto show?” Most of the students would raise their hands. The question made them uncross their arms.” Then she would ask, “Did you like going to the auto show? If you do, why?” That would get students talking about the design of the cars, the paint colors, and which cars were more powerful. 





Jo-Anne Weingarden with Nick Cave’s “Sound Suit” at the Norton Museum



One very important thing Jo-Anne learned about working with students older than age 11 is to not single out any one student as a “teacher’s pet” after they give a correct answer. “I pose open-ended questions. I will repeat the answer as a confirmation that this person gave the answer, but I may not even look at them. Beyond fifth grade, students don’t want to be teacher’s pets”.



When JoAnn works in the portrait section of the museum, she asks visitors to imagine that each portrait is a person they are meeting for the very first time. The portrait subject cannot speak directly to the museum visitor, so the visitor must use their power of observation to connect and learn about the picture. JoAnn asks about attributes such as hair, stature, clothing, fit and style and accessories, as well as the individual’s expression and surroundings. All these clues will give information about the portrait sitter.



Some of the highlights of Jo-Anne’s docent career occurred when she was least expecting them.

The following stand out in her memory: 


  • “I was on my way to do a tour that I really didn’t want to do. All the way driving there I thought, why am I doing this? They were preschoolers, and I thought this is not what I really had in mind when I became a docent. When I got to the museum, the teacher asked me if I had ever worked with “special children” before.



To me all children are special. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, just that the group would be a little smaller and the teacher instructed me to talk to them a little bit differently.”  As Jo-Anne began the tour, the group of preschoolers, teachers, students, and aids all held hands. Jo-Anne held the hand of a little boy who seemed to be shaking. As the group discussed pieces of artwork, the little boy continued to hold her hand. He remained silent, as the other children became engaged.



Jo-Anne Weingarden with Joan Miro’s “Woman Bird and Star” at the Norton Museum


In highlighting a particular Matisse artwork, Jo-Anne asked the same group to take out magic invisible scissors and see if they could cut out the shapes from the paintings. Her young companion holding her hand just looked and half smiled. When she took the group into the German expressionist gallery, she requested the group “…become that sculpture. See if you can pose just like that.” It was then that the little boy let go of her hand, walked over with the other children, and got into a semi-pose. He smiled, then came back to hold her hand. When the tour was over, the little boy’s teacher told Jo-Anne that the boy had never responded to any command or any direction in the entire time that he had been with the school. That was the first time they saw him actively participate. 




Jo-Anne Weingarden with James Chapin’s “Ruby Green Singing” at The Norton Museum



  • Jo-Anne and her husband enjoy traveling throughout Italy and like to be educated as much as possible before their trips. In Detroit while taking an Italian class, a fellow student, a woman in her 80’s who knew Jo-Anne was a docent at the DIA, invited them to study with her. Eventually the woman mentioned her parents had been patrons of the museum and asked if JoAnn would give her and an out-of-town visitor a personal tour. Jo-Anne was prepared to show her many sections of the museum when the woman surprised Jo-Anne by asking to visit the DIA library. “The DIA library is a fabulous place with sculptural busts all along the aisles between the bookcases and large tables to sit down and study the books and sculptures. As we were walking, the older woman was caressing the sculptures, something not allowed in the museum. I saw the librarian and thought I should let the librarian tell her she can’t touch the sculptures. Imagine my surprise when she introduced me to the bust of her mother!”  


Jo-Anne continues to give tours at the Norton. She loves to be asked interesting questions and hear different perspectives about the museum’s art exhibits. 





For more information about this interview please contact:


Locally, Caren is well-known for her tireless dedication to numerous community projects, including founding the City of Palm Beach Gardens GardensArt program and illustrating the life of George Morikami for the Morikami Museum. Her task force and committee contributions, to name just a few, include the Norton Museum of Art, ArtServe, Armory Art Center, Boys and Girls Club Gators Galore, SunFest, and Palm Beach Community College Campus Art Gallery and founding Artists of Palm Beach County.


For more information about Caren’s artwork:




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17019 SW Sapri Way   Port St. Lucie, FL 34986



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