February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you don’t know the names, you recognize the faces. Visitors to Joslyn Art Museum on 24th and Dodge streets enjoy the tours offered by well-trained docents, and aficionados have their favorite guides. Surely, the face at the top of that list belongs to Norma Fuller. Last year she led well over 100 tours, and she’s been at it since 1970.

“I love it here,” she says simply. In addition to the Education Department, museum areas that have felt the “Norma touch” include the Board of Governors, Acquisition Committee, and Joslyn Art Museum Association (JAMA). Norma and husband Jim will be moving to Wyoming this spring; to say she’ll be missed is a monumental understatement.

When Fuller answered a newspaper ad for Joslyn docents 42 years ago, there was no Department of Education. Art enthusiasts planned tours among themselves over lunch, sharing tips, information, and friendship. She’d arrived three days prior, in tears over leaving Washington, D.C., a Masters in Art History program at Georgetown University, and studio classes at the Corcoran. What she found at Joslyn was “an oasis.”

“The Docent Program has so much to offer,” she says. Ask any of the docents, and their responses will be similar: The program inspires a love of art and learning, and a desire to share that passion with others; camaraderie; special opportunities and activities, plus discounts in the museum shop and cafe.20130116_bs_1058 copy

Susie Severson, Director of Adult Programs (including docent training), says, “In many respects, docents are the ‘face’ of the Museum—often the first warm welcome, the first smile, the first impression visitors have to the Museum and its collections. Last year—a record-setting year in terms of attendance—Joslyn docents conducted over 1400 individual tours. Within the past six months alone, they served over 7200 visitors. This quick reflection on the numbers confirms the docents’ role as amazing public servants. They are respected beyond measure.” But she cautions that it is a serious commitment. Candidates must complete a two-year series of classes in art history, touring techniques, and the Joslyn collection. Information and a downloadable application form (deadline August 23) are available at the website.

Sharon Jackson learned firsthand the challenge and the rewards during her second year of training. She’d chosen to study an 18th-century painting by Peyron but was disheartened to find what little information she could was in French. Remembering that Fuller offered a tour in French, she asked for help. Though the two had never met, Fuller translated the primary document, reviewed Jackson’s paper, and offered tips for its presentation. “She went way beyond expectations,” says Jackson. “She became a mentor.” Fuller responded, “That’s what docents do; we help each other.”

Docents bring varied backgrounds to the program, so you’re sure to find someone who can pronounce Danish names, explain lithography, or connect an art style to its political environment. Most docents relish study. Jane Precella, Joslyn’s retail manager, says, “I’ve seen Norma in the cafe studying for a tour like a grad student cramming for an exam.” Yet there’s variety in preparation, too. One docent always watched Saturday morning TV so that she was up on the latest superheroes.

“She went way beyond expectations. She became a mentor.” – Sharon Jackson, Joslyn Art Museum docent

Creative expression is another perk of the program. Docents delight in tailoring a tour, step by step, as they listen to their particular group, and some docents develop customized tours. Fuller has found special satisfaction in two adult programs, Art Encounters and Visualizing Literature Book Club. “Making just the right connection is as euphoric to me as making just the right brush stroke,” she says.

As Fuller’s time of making her mark on the Joslyn nears an end, Director Jack Becker comments, “Norma is a remarkable and talented person who for over 40 years has shared her love, passion, and knowledge of the visual arts to literally thousands and thousands of lucky individuals. Omaha owes her a huge thanks, and Joslyn Art Museum will miss her talent and inspiration.”

The next time you take a tour at Joslyn, put a name with the face and enjoy the unique perspective your docent brings to the tour. You’ll never get another just like it.

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