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Joslyn Art Museum Docents

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.

Elle Lien Lynch

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“If this were a movie set,” says Elle Lien Lynch, gesturing to the coffee shop, “everything that you see would be something that the set dec buyer would have to find and buy. The one thing I wouldn’t have been responsible for would have been the things you and I, the actors, touch.” Suddenly, the ceramic mug on the table seems glamorous. A prop.

Last December, Lien finished her work as set-decorating buyer for Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska. The movie, estimated for a late 2013 release, follows “an aging, booze-addled father [as he] makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes prize,” according to IMDb.

Though Lien had no prior experience in the industry (she’s the former owner of closed downtown restaurant Daily Grub), Deidre Backs, a friend who had worked with Payne in film, suggested she submit her resume for the set-decorating buyer position. “Being a local is a huge plus as a buyer,” Backs says of the reasons she encouraged Lien, “because locals know where all the bodies are buried. And with her history of running a restaurant, I knew that handling the accounting side of the job would be no sweat.”

Though Lien says she knows Payne from around town, he had no idea she had applied for a job on Nebraska. “My resume got tossed into a pile with a bunch of other people,” she says. Still, something about it obviously caught the eye of set decorator Beauchamp Fontaine. “I am a hunter,” Lien says, referring to her experience in interior design and buying vintage furniture. “I put that on my resume. I’m a hunter-gatherer. I find old things and breathe new life into them.”

She started work in Norfolk, Neb., last September for a month of preproduction before filming began in October. Lien says she went into the experience without knowing much about the film besides the fact that Payne was directing. “Everything’s very vague,” she says. She read the script on her first day at work. When Payne noticed her in the film’s office one day, he told her, “Welcome to the circus.”

“I’m a hunter-gatherer. I find old things and breathe new life into them.”

“I think he was surprised to see me there,” she recalls.

While Lien says that Fontaine determined the look and feel of a set, she would occasionally defer to Lien’s Midwest background. “These are my people,” Lien says with a laugh. That familiarity with small-town Nebraska culture was probably helpful considering that much of what Lien found to decorate the sets (oh, and every item had to shoot well in both color and black-and-white, thanks to the look of the film) was in people’s garages or thrift stores. “If it had been ordering curtains or buying new things, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much,” she adds. “I would have been fine, but I loved this job.” She delightfully describes her responsibilities as speed shopping with someone else’s money.

Of course, she came from running her own restaurant where “you have your finger on absolutely every aspect of everything.” Working on Nebraska, Lien says she was more like a piece of a puzzle. “It’s very structured,” she says, describing how within the set decorating department, there’s the set decorator (Fontaine); the set decorating buyer (Lien); the lead man, who’s in charge of getting the stuff to the set, returning it, and storing it; and the set dressers, who place and install the various pieces in the set.

But wait, there’s more. Set decorating is a department within the art department. And, surprise, the art department is also a department within the art department. Then there’s scenic and prop. “You all feel like you’re doing your part,” Lien says, “but it’s just so big and decentralized.” When asked if she’d like to work on a film again, she says, “I would love to be a lead man. But it all appeals to me. It was the absolute perfect place for me to land for my first film.”

Though she and husband Joey Lynch had been seriously contemplating a move to New Orleans to be closer to more film industry opportunities, Lien credits Nebraska with gently changing her mind. “I felt like maybe it was why we didn’t move,” she says. “I felt a real sense of pride in this place.”