After she retired from her job as a secondary education professor at Arizona State University in 1992, Bets Manera wanted a challenge.
So the Paradise Valley resident enrolled to become a docent at the Phoenix Art Museum — in a program that requires students to attend class every Friday morning for 18 months, write research papers, take exams and give lectures about art.
"It’s almost like getting a master’s in art history," said Manera, 74.
Now, she is one of hundreds of local museum docents who volunteer their time to guide tours, present slide shows at schools and senior homes and, with every new exhibit, increase museum visitors’ understanding of the world of art. Most become involved because of a desire to give back to the community and many are former educators who miss teaching. Others, like Manera, have little or no background in art and simply want to learn.
"We have some people who come who want to stay stimulated and like contemporary art because it’s about ideas. A lot of it needs some interpretation," said Carolyn Robbins, curator of education at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, where there are 90 docents.
Because of the amount of time required to become a docent at Valley museums, a majority of volunteers are retirees, though each program has its share of young professionals. Training courses — which cover everything from art history and appreciation to public speaking — can last from one month to nearly two years and are often scheduled for weekday afternoons.
"Commitment and interest are the two keys," said 74-year-old Jackie Topus, a SMoCA docent since 1996.
Once trained, most docents are asked to commit a minimum amount of time over the course of a season and attend a fixed number of regular meetings, which frequently include presentations about new exhibits. Not many museums give their docents scripts, so it is up to the individual to create a tour based on the information given to them.
But Topus and many others say the rewards are well worth their donated time. At the Phoenix Art Museum, where there are 500 docents, more than 100 of them have served for more than 10 years.
"This brings together people, all ages, from all over the Valley," said Twyla Otte, 64, who has been a docent at the Phoenix Art Museum since 1990. "The friendships, the contacts — it’s just a tremendous opportunity to reach out beyond your own little radius."
Working with kids is also named as one of the greatest rewards. Damian Stamer, a 21-year-old Arizona State University student who volunteers as a docent at the ASU Art Museum, enjoys seeing young ones "turned onto art in some way."
Topus added, "If a secondgrade class comes and has a wonderful day, learns a new word, has a new thought, that’s a successful outing."
Still, the most talked-about benefit of docent work is the amount of knowledge they receive by way of continual training. They often get to meet visiting artists and curators, and because there are always new exhibits being installed in area museums, the learning never ends.
"I just thoroughly enjoy being around the art," Manera said. "I feel like I’m getting a free education."