SLIDESHOW: Gallery docent tours provide stories behind the art

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Photos by Katie McLean | Staff Photographer

At the beginning of Barbi Price’s weekly tour of Chautauqua Institution’s art galleries, she almost set Fowler-Kellogg Art Center on fire. She wanted to dramatically reveal the violin silhouette that Collin Everett’s Dada-inspired glass sculpture made on the gallery’s wall, so she held a manila folder in front of a bare light bulb pointed at the glass.

While Price explained that Everett was the youngest student at the Institution’s School of Art, having just finished his freshman year of college, and the youngest person to ever have his work included in the Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, in 2012, a thin trail of smoke rose from the folder.

“That would be good, wouldn’t it?” Price joked. “ ‘Docent burns Fowler-Kellogg to the ground.’ ”

Price has a sense of humor, garnered from 34 years of teaching; she currently heads the English department at Jamestown High School. It’s her first year as a docent for the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution art galleries, but she’s conspiratorial with her tour guests and genuinely interested in teaching people something new.

Gallery tours run at 1 p.m. every Tuesday, starting at Fowler-Kellogg and then moving on to Strohl Art Center. A guest once left the tour early because she wanted to go to the Interfaith Lecture; Price suggested she come back the next day for a private tour.

“We just had the best time between the two of us going through the [exhibitions],” Price said. “There was a thank-you card on my desk the next day. It felt good to know I really made a difference.”

Price puts a lot of effort into preparing an enjoyable tour. When the rotating exhibitions get hung in the galleries, Price snoops to get a sneak peek of the art. Then, at the shows’ opening receptions, she walks around with a little notebook in her hand to take notes on her conversations with the artists.

Since she also has to take guests through the Annual Student Exhibition, Price has spent time “skulking around the Arts Quad at all hours of the day,” finding artists in their studios and asking them about their work.

Cathy Digel, a VACI Partners member who served as a docent for the Institution’s galleries last season, recently took one of Price’s tours.

“I love being here around the art and knowing about it,” Digel said, “but I found it really stressful to memorize everything. The preparation was really overwhelming.”

But Digel thinks Price is a perfect fit for the docent job. She attended Price’s tour to pick up some new insights about the art in the Institution’s galleries; she wanted to be able to share stories with her friends when she showed them around the galleries.

One of Price’s stories dealt with the painters Paige Stewart and Chris O’Flaherty. She described a process in which Stewart starts a painting and then gives it to O’Flaherty to finish.

“It’s just like [Pieter] Brueghel and [Peter Paul] Rubens,” said Chautauquan Bibi Saidi, who brought her daughter-in-law and 12-year-old grandson with her on the tour. “Rubens would paint the bodies and Brueghel would finish [the work].”

Saidi had taken her grandson to the galleries the day before, but they decided to come back for the tour, she said, to hear the stories behind what they had seen and to get a deeper appreciation for the artistic process.

Price led her tour group “across the piazza, as we like to call it,” from Fowler-Kellogg to the main gallery of Strohl, where “Contemporary Couples: A Creative Life Together” was on display. (This exhibit features work by four married couples who are all professional artists.) She pointed out the male artists in each couple, complete with a brief history of the artist and his process, and asked the tour’s guests to guess which female artists were their wives. On the second floor, Price asked everyone to identify which piece in “Wood: On and Off the Wall” wasn’t actually made of wood. (Eric Serritella had crafted ceramic teapots that looked like he made them out of driftwood.)

“You can tell you’re a teacher,” Digel said to Price. “You ask more questions, engage people, and you do it all so playfully.”