Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Photography by: 
Ranjani Groth
M

ary Burke ('96 M.F.A.) likes to hear the silence. The hush comes when visitors to the Sid Richardson Museum, which focuses on American Western art, enter a small gallery displaying five impressionistic paintings by Frederic Remington. The artwork features scenes of life of the American West in the 1800s -- an active stagecoach scene, a native gathering, an American Indian riding in the snow-covered landscape -- set against the night sky.

"There is a perceptible change in visitor response when they see all these nocturnes," says Burke, the Fort Worth museum's director since 2012.

But she also likes the noise, especially from schoolchildren captivated by action-based paintings of cowboys and Native Americans.

"You see the painting through their eyes," she says. "You just never know from day to day what might transpire."

Burke, who began working at the museum in 1996 as an educator, has enhanced the museum's educational initiatives and created innovative exhibitions thanks to her education at UNT.

In the College of Visual Arts and Design's art museum education program, students can take one of two tracks -- an art museum education certificate, designed for those who are working on a graduate degree in another field, or a master's degree with an emphasis on art museum education. They learn to think critically via vigorous discussions and courses in pedagogy and also take field trips and participate in internships at DFW's world-renowned museums.

As a result, alumni land positions in some of the country's most prestigious museums and institutions ­-- including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Animation Research Library at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Los Angeles, among others -- driving the art world from coast to coast. From collections coordinators to art museum educators, these professionals do everything from restoring great works of art to developing educational programs for those with specific needs. And they are motivated by a common goal -- to ensure visitors from all walks of life get to appreciate, learn and think about art in new ways.

"I'm consciously thinking about what visitors may gain when they visit the museum," Burke says, "and how I can find ways to be sure they enjoy their experience."

Creating new worlds

For example, Burke wants museum goers to feel comfortable in the museum's gallery, as if they're stepping into Sid Richardson's sitting room. Richardson was a wealthy oil businessman whose more than 100 pieces of Western art were moved from his ranch home and office to an intimate, bustling museum in downtown Fort Worth in 1982.

"We are so fortunate to be able to share these masterworks from Richardson's personal collection," she says.

In her first position as an educator, Burke developed school tours, wrote lessons, and trained the teachers and docents who led the tours. Now as director, she oversees the seven-member staff and exhibitions.

For the 2016 exhibition honoring the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry ('58), she worked with other museums to obtain costume sketches, designs for stage sets and screenplay notes.

Burke inherited her love of art from her mother, who often took her to their hometown museum, the St. Louis Museum of Art. After graduating from Texas Christian University, Burke served as director of education at Waco Art Center before pursuing a master's at UNT. She uses many of the lessons she learned, from advocacy for the visual arts in communities and schools to collaboration with teammembers, to give visitors the best experience possible.

"We know our patrons want to find value in their visits," Burke says. "It's important to examine and reinvent ourselves to stay relevant."

Heart of interpretation
Emily Fry ('08 M.A.)

Emily Fry ('08 M.A.) also keeps audience experience top of mind. She is director of interpretation for the Art Institute of Chicago, where more than a million people may experience her creations.

The museum houses such classic works as Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and Grant Wood's American Gothic and was featured in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

"UNT really taught me to think about the visitor," she says. "That's the heart of interpretation."

Fry leads a team that focuses on just that, from creating videos to writing labels for pieces so visitors can understand the art. For an exhibition of ancient Chinese bronzes last year, they set up a hands-on activity for visitors to make their own rubbings to convey that this was how historians learned about the vessels.

And when the new African galleries opened, they consulted a Yoruba spiritual practitioner from Nigeria and his student in Chicago to gain multiple perspectives.

Always active in creating her own art, including welding and pencil drawing, Fry also worked at the Wichita Art Museum and Spencer Museum of Art while pursuing her bachelor's degree at the University of Kansas. A classmate and Wichita colleague, Amanda Blake ('06 M.A.), now director of education and library services at Amon Carter Museum of American Art, told her about UNT's art history and art education programs.

At UNT, she completed a master's degree in art history, the certificate in art museum education and took part in the Priddy Fellowship in Arts Leadership, in which she took classes in not-for-profit leadership. She also applied for fellowships, receiving one at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City during her second year. After stints working at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, she landed the job at the Art Institute.

"There are so many iconic works in this museum," Fry says. "I'm humbled to be a part of it, and to help push visitors to think outside the box of what a museum can be."

Greatest workspace on earth
Bethany Stout McGill ('09 M.A.)

Bethany Stout McGill ('09 M.A.) also works with some unforgettable artwork.

"I feel like a guardian of not only my childhood memories, but of so many other people's childhood memories," she says.

McGill is a collections coordinator for the Animation Research Library at Walt Disney Animation Studios, which holds roughly 65 million objects -- background paintings, animation drawings and paintings of visual concepts of characters, places and story scenarios from films.

An artist herself, McGill majored in studio art at Oklahoma Baptist University. She came to UNT to earn her master's in art history, and discovered her calling when she visited DFW museums as part of the Seminar in Art Museums course.

When she heard museum staffers describe their work, she thought, "You get to touch the cool stuff? It feels like being best friends with a celebrity."

She recalls famed Disney animation director and producer Don Hahn describing the work done at the ARL as "part curator, chemist and detective" after he toured the facilities in the 1990s.

"In the early days of the studio, not all artwork was credited or organized like it might be today. I visually evaluate the drawings and make determinations as to what production and artist produced it to rehouse and attribute accurately," she says. "Unlike museums that keep records of artist, date and mediums used from the moment of acquisition, we are working with a collection that was created with an intention set on creating a film, and that information wasn't always recorded. "

After earning her degree, McGill volunteered at local museums and, later, at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian when she moved with her husband, Ken McGill ('05), to Washington, D.C. A Smithsonian colleague tipped her off about the job at Disney.

Now she's working on archiving sketches from The Lion King, requiring her to don gloves and use tweezers to rehouse and organize the material. She also creates records in an effort to digitize artwork.

McGill loves that she's part of maintaining the legacy of the Disney company and caring for the artists' work.

"So many wonderful artists have poured themselves into this animated work," she says. "It's important to preserve it."

Art of discussion
Andrew Palamara ('14 M.A.)

Andrew Palamara ('14 M.A.) recently took a group of docents into a gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where they were surrounded by early 20th century portraits of women. Their task? To label the portraits -- from artists such as Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera -- as "alluring," "unappealing" or any other word of their choosing. The room buzzed as they discussed how visitors may perceive beauty through the bias of age, gender and culture.

"People have their own ideas about what kind of art is lovely to look at," says Palamara, associate director of docent learning for the museum.

Palamara helps generate discussions for docents, who lead tours in the museum that contains 6,000 years of art. He learned that level of initiative in classes taught by Laura Evans, UNT associate professor of art education and coordinator of art museum education, who often encouraged group discussions instead of lectures.

"That experience informed my thinking about how people learn and how to empower people to speak their minds about what they see," he says.

Palamara, who grew up in Coppell, studied design communications at Belmont University in Nashville before joining UNT's program, where he interned for a summer camps program at the Dallas Museum of Art. Now, in Cincinnati, he trains more than 100 docents and says he appreciates being surrounded by great works of art and interacting with people.

"At least once a day, I get to have a conversation about art and how to make art accessible to different kinds of people," he says. "I try not to take that for granted.

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