Arts + Culture

Students make visitors feel welcome at the Hammer Museum at UCLA

Positions in the visitor experience program are more than just part-time jobs

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Hammer Visitors Experience 1
theonepointeight.com

Acting as the first friendly faces visitors see is a key part of the job for the student representatives working at the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

Turn off the crowded sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard and enter the Hammer Museum at UCLA, and one of the first people you’ll meet at the front door is a student in a stylish gray button-up, welcoming you. Then as you head to the front desk in the lobby there are two more. Walking through the galleries upstairs there are more students in gray shirts answering questions about the artworks. If you go to a public lecture or film at the Billy Wilder Theater they’ll be escorting you to your seats. And, if you’re leaning in a bit too close for a better look at Gustave Moreau’s “King David,” someone in a gray shirt might give you a friendly reminder to “Step back from the art, please.”

The 90-plus students who make up this gray-shirted army are the Hammer’s Visitor Experience Representatives. Part of the Hammer’s visitor experience department, which formed a little more than six months following the museum’s move to offer free admission for all guests, the student-employment program hires students to act as some of the most prominent public faces of the Hammer.

“The position is dynamic and multi-faceted,” said Christopher Mangum-James, the Hammer’s manager of visitor experience. “There are times when you will be making art with families one day and then the next day assisting donors at our annual Gala in the Garden.”

In their jobs the students not only earn money, but also connect with the Los Angeles art scene through one of the city’s premier museums.

“As a bio major I don’t get much exposure to the art world,” said second-year UCLA student Austin Tuomi. “By working at the museum, I get to know certain pieces of art even better than many art professors since I spend 15 to 20 hours in the galleries a week.”

As part of the training Tuomi and other students, who come from UCLA and Santa Monica College and have majors spanning fine arts to science to technology, are given curator-led tours of new exhibits to gain a better understanding of the art and so they can ask the curators questions before talking with visitors.

“I like interacting with the public because everyone is viewing the art through a unique lens,” said Madeline Morrison, a UCLA third year studying fine arts. “Since the Hammer is free, it is more accessible to everyone and I find that people are very appreciative of that and often eager to share their opinions. Art is at its best when it is exposed to an audience truly representative of our culture.”

Morrison noted “Plastic,” a live installation by Maria Hassabi stationing dancers throughout the museum, and “Give More Than You Take,” a comprehensive look at the sculptures, drawings and installations of Jim Hodges, as some of her favorite exhibitions. 

Though the students work in a department called “visitor experience,” the program focuses as much on the students as it does on visitors, with staff members from other departments at the Hammer contributing to student training. In addition to the curators who provide tours of exhibitions, the Hammer staff organizes enrichment activities that provide the students with the opportunity to experience the connection between the Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles art scene through trips to MOCA, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and other organizations.

“Since I’m from Mumbai and moved to L.A. only a year ago, the Hammer Museum has given me a head way into the arts and design culture prominent in Los Angeles, that I would not have a chance to explore otherwise,” said Aninya Ahluwalia, who is studying architecture and design at UCLA Extension. Ahluwalia said that the architecture-themed “Provocations” exhibit by Thomas Heatherwick was her favorite and that it felt “like a playground in the gallery.”

Mangum-James emphasized that one of the major goals of the program is to help students cultivate skills and knowledge applicable to a career after graduation, whether it be at the Hammer, in another gallery, or outside of the art world altogether. To that end the Hammer’s academic programs department hosts workshops on career skills like personal branding and resume building. Past students have gone on to work in the Hammer, real estate and even nursing.

Students walk away not only with invaluable workplace experience, but also a deep appreciation for the goals and impact of the Hammer. For Sebastian Genato, a junior transfer pursuing fine arts, the visitor experience program has helped him to become more open-minded.

“It is understandable if someone does not agree with or understand how works like Maria Hassabi’s slow-motion dance performances or Devin Kenny’s use of the internet and social media can be art,” said Genato. “It's not like the traditional oil paintings and bronze busts you’d find in the Armand Hammer Collection.”

This dissonance sometimes leads visitors to question the validity of the often avant-garde installations that pass through the Hammer. It’s up to representatives like Genato to engage visitors in a way that is educational and non-judgmental. 

“I’ve learned to be more receptive and accepting of other people’s perspectives on art and on life in general,” Genato said. “When I am confronted with a patron who does not like an artwork or an exhibition, the last thing I want to do is attack their opinions.”

While this program has a profound impact on its representatives, the students have a comparable effect on the Hammer Museum.

“Having students throughout the museum has had a transformative impact on the Hammer,” said Mangum-James. “The energy students bring creates an open and lively environment unlike any other museum in Los Angeles.” 

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