Volunteer guides bring the art to life at the Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts

Shortly after retiring 15 years ago from her long career as an educator, Evelyn Bouley began working at a brand new museum in northwest Houston.

Her background as a former Tomball ISD art teacher was a perfect fit for her new position at the Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, where she helped launch the museum’s educational program.

About 10 years later, Bouley retired from his position at the Pearl, but continued to work.

“I’m from the baby boomer generation and we get teased all the time about how we just can’t stop working,” she laughed.

Bouley is now a volunteer guide at the museum and offers tours to people of all ages.

“It’s really a fun thing to do for anyone who likes working with people and likes that museum atmosphere,” Bouley said. “I’m excited about it; I love it and hope we can encourage more people to become Guides because it’s a great use of your time.

Many of the Pearl’s volunteer docents are former teachers. But background in education and art are not required for the position.

“Enthusiasm and the ability to work with people” are two essential qualities of a good docent, according to Bouley.

“You don’t need to know a lot because we have training sessions and all this information is provided to you,” she said.

Like many nonprofits, the Pearl has felt the negative impact of the pandemic, including among its pool of volunteer guides.

Many guides were retired professionals who, because of their age or underlying conditions, were reluctant to return after in-person tours resumed, explained museum director Courtney Gardner.

“In the middle of this process, we had to go out and find new guides, which can be a bit difficult. … But I’m very happy to say that people really took up the challenge, and we were successful in recruiting new guides and training them,” said Gardner.

Bouley said the Pearl could still use more volunteer guides to accommodate the upsurge in people visiting the museum.

Last fall, the Pearl served more than 4,000 third-grade Klein ISD students who passed by the museum on a field trip. A core of 25 to 30 volunteers gave over 500 hours of service to visit three days a week.

“We were able to accomplish this in partnership with the schools in part because the school systems covered the cost of transportation…and we did this with the support of our volunteer guides so we didn’t have to our turn to bill the school system,” Gardner mentioned.

Volunteers are key to ensuring the Pearl can deliver on its promise of providing unfettered access to art without having to charge admission.

One of the first questions guides ask groups of children on trips to the Pearl is whether they have visited a museum.

“A lot of kids raise their hands, but there’s still about 20% of them saying it’s their first time going to a museum,” she said.

Gardner thinks part of the appeal of serving as a volunteer guide is being able to share a passion for art and provide new experiences for school-aged children.

“I loved my stay at the museum. My favorite part of the excursion was getting on the bus because I had never been on a bus before,” Gardner read in a student’s thank you note. “The art was really pretty too.”

“It’s very gratifying,” Gardner said.

Volunteer hours vary depending on their availability and the activities taking place at the museum. Additionally, some guides prefer to work with certain age groups, which Gardner said the museum accommodates.

The museum sees a variety of groups arrive for tours, including preschoolers, homeschoolers, undergraduates, seniors, and adults with developmental disabilities.

On recent school visits, Gardner said there were classes of non-English speaking students.

“We’re always looking for people who have additional language skills, especially since Houston is such a diverse community, so we always need that as well,” Gardner said.

The process to become a guide begins with completing a volunteer application. A background check may be required, especially for those wishing to work with school-aged children.

After the background check is complete, new guides must undergo training and attend at least one tour to observe a more experienced guide.

The museum goes through the process of integrating new volunteer guides with each exhibit cycle, Gardner said.

One aspect of the Pearl Bouley enjoys that it brings the fine arts closer to Northwest Houston residents.

“I’m so glad the Pearl is bringing fine art to the outskirts of town because before if you wanted to see fine art you had to drive an hour – and I did – but then you drive an hour back and it can be quite exhausting, especially in this traffic,” Bouley said. “The Pearl makes it so much more accessible to see quality artwork here in the Cypress area.”

Several other volunteer opportunities also exist in the museum. Volunteers can help with family arts activities, special events, and even simple office work.

Whether creating it, learning it or teaching it, art is a lifelong passion for Bouley.

“You could never learn enough about me, and that’s why I love being a docent is that you keep learning about the art,” Bouley said. “You get to know the new art that comes to the museum every few months and I love researching it, sharing it with the other docents and meeting the artists.”

She likes to inspire that same fascination in others.

“I always try to bring the paintings to life for them,” she said. “And if they can relate to something, I feel like I’ve achieved something.”

For more information, visit www.pearlmfa.org/museum-volunteers.

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