Regardless of your museum’s curatorial focus, with a little research, your museum can find a book that will interest visitors, stimulate excitement, and grow understanding surrounding your collections—after all, books exist addressing every subject! To ensure your visitors engage with the available reading material, you can gather them in a book club! If you stimulate them in discussions of the books combined with key pieces in your collection, it is possible to create more excited visitors and grow your museum membership.
In November 2022, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, the only accredited art museum in Nevada, launched the Turning Pages Book Club. For the first meeting, Book Club docent leaders Katie Quinn and Susan Henneberg selected a challenging, complex artwork, And They Are Not Afraid of the Night Because They Are the Color of It, by artist Sydney Cain, and paired it with Toni Morrison’s seminal Beloved. This literary work inspired Cain’s painting.
Picture this: a dozen or more Museum visitors and a few docents spend the better part of an hour in front of this large work discussing its aspects and possible meanings. In the painting, mysterious figures disappear into a black background; a faded patchwork quilt with subdued hints of color covers another figure lying on a bed. The observer can’t tell if the person on the bed is alive.
Ordinarily, this mysterious artwork would be a challenge to discuss; however, Museum members in the Turning Pages Book Club first met over lunch in the Museum Café and discussed the themes and characters in Morrison’s book: slavery, a freed black family, multiple ghost-like characters, and a grandmother who was always covered with a quilt. These literary themes and motifs alluded to the images in Cain’s painting. Further, the artwork enriched visitors’ understanding of the book. The discussion moved beyond the book and artwork, touching on American history and forming connections between past and present events.
As docents, isn’t this what we want: visitors standing back and thinking about a piece in a collection, looking closely, discovering meaning, and finding relevance to our histories and worlds?
After several attempts during the pandemic to host a virtual book group via Zoom, the success of the first in-person Turning Pages Book Club pleasantly surprised the docent leaders. Docent leader Katie Quinn commented, “I thoroughly enjoyed the book discussion despite the focus on the horrors of slavery. I was blown away by the insightful comments from the group when viewing the art. They stood back, taking in the large canvas. They moved in, closely examining the details. Without being told, the participants discerned the theme of the exhibition. The book enriched their experience of the art, and vice versa.” Further, the positive outcome surprised the leaders because the first participant arrived stating what no book club leader wants to hear: “I hated the book!” Most other guests agreed that Morrison’s 1988 classic had been a difficult book to read—albeit worthwhile.
The second Turning Pages Book Club sold out two weeks before the scheduled date and proved equally thought-provoking.
The club discussed Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American author who has a Ph.D. in botany. The book explored humankind’s responsibilities to care for the world and invited readers to allow the world to be their teacher. This book was paired with Water by Design, an exhibition that explores water’s role in the global economy and society’s responsibility to protect this precious natural resource. Participants appreciated that the book choice and discussion aligned perfectly with the museum’s collection focus on art and environment, commenting, “This club represents a unique opportunity to learn about individual artists and their work at a deeper level. In this club, the level of discourse is very perceptive. It is wonderful to share ideas with others who love art.”
For each Book Club gathering, docent leaders divided the responsibilities: one docent facilitated the lunchtime book discussion, while the other led the discussion of the artwork in the galleries. The books selected represent a variety of genres: fiction, very readable scientific non-fiction, and historical fiction from different eras. Attendees have commented, “I like that I am reading books that before I would not have even looked at,” and “The books selected are not always on my radar, so they expand my thinking.” The books’ diversity coincides with the exhibitions’ diversity, which docents appreciate because they stay fresh and excited with new artwork to study and learn.
Behind the scenes, Book Club leaders have found discovering the right pairing between a book and an artwork or exhibition challenging. According to docent leader Susan Henneberg, “Their goal is to find a book that is not only relevant to the exhibit but is also engaging with high literary merit.” For one meeting, the most relevant book was 800 pages! In that case, the leaders split the book in half, discussing the book over two meetings.
Before making a book selection—one that complements an artwork or theme of an exhibition generates fresh insights for everyone, including the leaders themselves—the docent leaders have checked out dozens of books, read reviews and excerpts, and talked to the very helpful Museum staff. For one exhibition focused on immigration, Henneberg reserved at least 15 books, checked out 11, started most of them, and finished six. Their efforts have been rewarded by comments from participants; several have said that they appreciated the quality of the books the group reads! Attendance has remained high, with many regulars unaware of the work behind the scenes. For every selection, Henneberg has hoped to raise a central question that might be answered by the art, but the leaders admit that they are still striving for that goal.
Adding to the difficulty, selections must be made months in advance, before the docents have seen a new exhibition, to fit with the museum’s exhibition and marketing schedules (exhibitions change every four to six months, ensuring that there is always something new for visitors to explore).
These meetings have more than met the museum’s goals, according to Claire Muñoz, Vice President of Museum Advancement and Deputy Director: to create a space to build community and engagement, to encourage a deeper investigation of artworks, and to create new opportunities for docents to engage with the community. Additionally, discussions inspired by the Turning Pages Book Club have encouraged visitors to become more involved with the museum, with some deciding to become members or even docents.
Benefits have extended to the Docent Corps as well. Several of us attend each Book Club meeting. We discuss the books among ourselves outside of the meetings; we gain insights that we add to our tours, and we have developed stronger friendships within our group. As a program at the Nevada Museum of Art, the Turning Pages Book Club is definitely a prize winner.
About the author: Betsy Burgess has been a Nevada Museum of Art docent since 2014. She has a BA in Art History from Wellesley College and an MA from St. Joseph College.