Walk through the doors of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and chances are the first thing you will see is the smiling face of a volunteer. Here to serve as welcoming representatives and knowledgeable sources of information, NMWA’s dedicated volunteer corps is essential to the daily operations of the institution.
Volunteers have a variety of reasons for devoting their time and skills to supporting NMWA, though one shared motivation is a commitment to the museum’s mission of redefining traditional histories of art. As Josephine Cabatu, current visitor experience volunteer and docent-in-training, says, “NMWA’s mission to bring recognition to the achievements of women artists said it all for me. I wanted to be a part of this mission.” Others cite the opportunity to draw on their experiences as a motivating factor in their decision to volunteer. Erin Garland, another visitor experience volunteer and docent-in-training, says that in addition to loving the museum’s mission, she is excited to use her background in teaching. Volunteering as a docent, she says, “combines my love of art and teaching.”
Volunteers have the opportunity to become well acquainted with NMWA’s collection, and many gravitate toward specific works over time. Erin is partial to Lady in an Evening Dress by Lilla Cabot Perry, as it served as her inspiration for a project as a costume design major in college, while docent Marilyn Cohen favors Portrait of a Noblewoman by Lavinia Fontana because of its rich details, which she enjoys sharing with visitors during tours. Josephine, who is currently taking part in the eight-month docent training program, says that “because of the NMWA docent training I am undergoing, works now strike me in such different ways and for different reasons that I don’t know how to consider a ‘favorite’ at the moment.”
What’s the best part of being a NMWA volunteer? That depends on whom you ask. Ed Williams, who has been a docent for 18 years, says that for him, “the best part of being a docent is meeting people from all over the world and introducing them to our marvelous collection.” Erin also finds that her interactions with visitors are what make her time at NMWA so meaningful: “Our visitors are wonderful! I’ve had so many interesting conversations about artists, works in the collection, and their experiences. I haven’t experienced this level of conversation at other museums where I’ve volunteered. I think it speaks to the connection and value our visitors place on the museum.” For Marilyn, the highlight of her ten years as a docent is the camaraderie and friendships forged between the volunteers. Sarah Cosgrove Gaumond began as a visitor experience volunteer in January 2014 and says of her experience at NMWA, “I love every part of it.”
—Olivia Mendelson is the education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.