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From Intern to Director: ONU Alumna Serves as Director of Visitors’ Services for Nation’s Largest Contemporary Art Museum

Amy CorleOhio Northern’s art and design program has served as a foundation for hundreds of careers affiliated with the arts. With alumni all over the world, it’s no wonder that they bring leadership and foresight to their professions. For one alumna, ONU certainly was the right choice for her.

“The flexibility of the independent study program in art allowed me to explore a museum career as an intern,” says Amy Corle (BFA ’88). “When I graduated, the position directly lead to a job with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, that I still enjoy today.”

“I had a great internship experience at MCA,” explains Amy. “It was an exciting time. There was so much going on, including the beginning stages of a new building. Jeff Koons and Nancy Spero, some of the most famous contemporary artists of our time, were installing work at the Museum. And who could ever forget the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.”

Amy is the director of visitor services and manager of internal marketing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She hires, trains and supervises a 17-member staff in front-desk admissions, information, box office, and many other services. She’s also developing a customer service manual for the security staff.

Since her humbling beginnings at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, she has witnessed the Museum’s rapid expansion. In July 1996, the museum moved to a new building more than five times larger than its previous site. The staff grew from 75 to 200. “We still try to maintain a small, friendly feeling for visitors,” explains Amy.

To keep herself fresh and in touch with her staff’s capacity and the public’s needs, she tries to work on the floor as much as possible. One full day a week, she serves as floor manager. The rest of the week she spends up to three hours a day filling-in for employees who are absent.

“In the old building, it was easy to provide customer service because it was so small,” remembered Amy Corle, who became visitor services manager at the time of the move. “People walked up to the front desk all the time to talk about the art. People still do that in the new building, but we have to work harder to keep the feeling of intimacy and accessibility.”

“Part of my job is to make sure that every employee understands that anyone who enters the museum must be made to feel welcome,” says Amy. “Attention to visitor service is the key to our success.”

Contemporary art can be challenging for some visitors entering the Museum. “We know that visitors may have difficulties grappling with [some of the art],” explains Amy. “They must not be hampered in their consideration of the art by distractions or discomforts. We try to make the visit as nice and easy as possible, because the art often isn’t like that.”

Amy also testifies that she works with some wonderful, experienced people in her field. “Fortunately, we have some top-notch professionals working at the Museum. Our director, Madeleine Grynsztejn, joined the museum in 2008 after serving at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She wants the museum to be open and accessible and visitors to feel comfortable and well-treated.”

One way the museum increases its accessibility is by staying open late on Tuesdays and making admission free for the entire day. “Even though we won’t be collecting admission then, it would be wrong to think we need fewer staff on duty,” says Amy. “We attract more people and there are a lot of first-time visitors who have questions and need help.”

“We even have a concierge-like service,” explains Amy. “If a visitor asks for directions to a restaurant, we’d like our front desk staff to not only provide the information, but offer to call and make a reservation,” she said. “We want to provide outstanding service to strengthen the visitor’s connection to the museum, but we also see ourselves as contributing to tourism in the city.”

The contemporary art itself sometimes prompts strong reactions from visitors, according to Amy. “The biggest, most frequent complaint we get is about the art. Some people will say it’s not art, it’s a hoax or something’s offensive to them.”

To handle the complaints, she said the staff had to learn more about conflict resolution and how to handle people who are upset. “We listen and empathize without agreeing,” she explained. “We might say something like ‘I’m sorry you’re so upset and I’ll share your comments with the rest of the staff.’ Then we’ll offer them a comment card so they can put their feelings in their own words.”

“We do everything we can to appease them,” she continued. “If they want, we give them their money back, and we give free passes for future shows. We will also offer them a free audio tour if they’re at all receptive to learning more about the work and possibly hearing the artist talk about it in his or her own words.”

Amy also needs to work with the visitor services staff to prepare them for public reaction to difficult work. “The front-of-house staff tours each exhibition with the curator,” clarifies Amy. “It’s essential that they have a basic understanding of the exhibition, and if there are difficult objects or aspects to the show, the public relations department works with them on developing responses.”

Not too long ago, the museum did prepare to open what they expected would be a controversial exhibition for some visitors. The show of works by Charles Ray featured a dozen nude mannequins. “With an exhibition like this,” said Amy, “we talk extensively about whether or not to alert visitors to the content of the show before they enter. We have to balance our interest in preserving the artist’s freedom of expression and the sensitivities of families.” On occasion, she said, the museum has put signs outside galleries stating that the exhibition includes some material that may not be appropriate for young visitors.

In such instances, Amy says, when anyone arrives with children, the staff will suggest they preview the exhibition before bringing in the children. “People appreciate the warning,” she said. “Sometimes the adults will take turns viewing the show, while steering the kids to the permanent collection. Parents may want to introduce their children to contemporary art, but they don’t want to be surprised.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the nation’s largest facilities devoted to contemporary art. Founded in 1945, the museum offers innovative and compelling programs along with works of art where the public can directly experience the ideas of living artists.

“It is indeed a privilege for me to work at MCA,” said Amy. “I am grateful to those involved in my education at Ohio Northern in making it possible for me to do an internship here.”

Ohio Northern University offers both the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees with majors in advertising design, art education, graphic design and studio arts. The department of A&D holds memberships in national organizations such as the National Art Education Association, College Art Association, Foundations in Art: Theory and Education and the National Council on Education of Ceramic Arts. The department is recognized in the second edition of “Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians and Writers” as one of the top 200 creative programs nationwide. For additional information about the department of art & design, contact the department at 419-772-2160.