Member Spotlight: David Tierno

I retired at the beginning of the millennium and began looking for a new challenge. My wife, a longtime docent at the Princeton University Art Museum, suggested that I consider applying to the docent program. The Museum had recently hired a curator of education and academic programming, who planned to introduce a more formal training program for docent trainees, so it was a propitious time. I was accepted as part of the first class to participate in the new program.

The next year was one of the most challenging and interesting periods of my life. By the end of the program, I was able to discuss the cultures represented in the Museum’s collections, artistic styles and movements, and the objects frequently displayed. Most importantly, after receiving a great deal of instruction and guidance from our instructor, experienced docents, and especially my wife, I began to understand how to look at an object and see what the artist was trying to represent and communicate. I learned to “speak for the art” to Museum visitors.

I quickly came to recognize that ongoing participation in the program would require a commitment to continuing study. As my knowledge grew, my passion for art grew as well. I was particularly driven to seek more effective ways of communicating the knowledge and wisdom contained in these great objects to the children who visit the Museum, helping them to develop a more complete worldview and enhancing their learning.

I am sure it is obvious that my favorite Museum activity is giving tours to children. Their ability to look at an object with clear, unbiased eyes and intuitive grasp of abstract concepts, such a minimalism and abstract expressionism, continually amaze me. The pure joy that is reflected in their eyes and smiles when they learn and understand a new idea provides me with a great sense of satisfaction. Preparing for a tour with a group of children, I would reflect on questions such as:

What can we learn about bravery and service to the community from the story of Perseus?

What is Édouard Manet trying to say about the role of women in late nineteenth-century Paris?

What can a child learn about her Guatemalan ancestors when she visits the Pre-Columbian galleries?

What can a child learn about the importance of preserving our environment after seeing Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge?

These types of reflections often led to fascinating discussions; the children’s insights and observations are fresh, innovative, and creative, sometimes suggesting new areas for study and reflection.

I believe that I lit a spark of interest in the visual arts in many children through my work as a docent. Although I am no longer able to conduct tours, I remain involved with the Friends of the Museum to ensure that resources are available to continue the range of programming that has become a hallmark of the Art Museum.

My family includes four artists—my wife is a former art teacher, my oldest daughter is a graphic designer, my youngest daughter graduated with a degree in industrial design, and my youngest son is a graphic artist—so I suppose it was inevitable that I would become involved in the visual arts. The creative gene that infused my wife and children is largely absent from my genetic profile, but I began to develop a more informed appreciation of the visual arts through my wife’s tutelage. Leisurely strolls through the Philadelphia Museum of Art were a regular part of our courtship and the start of my education in the visual arts, which continued during museum visits with our children. Later, my wife joined me on many business trips and we always included visits to museums in the various cities on my itinerary; my exposure to and appreciation of great art continued to expand.

I was, however, a fairly typical museum visitor. I would stroll through the galleries, pause in front of a beautiful piece, gaze at it, and from time to time read the label to learn a few facts about the object and its creator. Occasionally, I reflected on the historical context in which the object was created and tried to imagine what the artist might have experienced in that place and time. I did not, however, have much of an understanding of the ideas or emotions the artist was trying to convey. It has been a decade since I became a Museum docent, and my life has been significantly enriched: my understanding of the visual arts has grown enormously, along with my ability to appreciate the wide range of styles and movements represented both in our collections and in special exhibitions. As a result, I can state unequivocally that art matters in my life and in the lives of the many children who visit our Museum.

David Tierno
President, Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum