Staff Profiles: John Harness

by Michael O'Malley

last edited on Fri. September 26 2014

Briefly, who are you, how long have you been here, and what is your (current and past) position(s) at the Smart?
My name is John Harness, and currently I am the Interim Associate Tours Manager – I work in the Education Department. I started working at the Smart in fall of 2007 as a docent and since then have also been several different kinds of Education Intern before taking over this role. In fact, though the youngest, I am the member of the Education Department who has worked at the Smart the longest!

Could you describe a typical day in your current role?
I like to say that if you call the Smart and have a group of thirty 5th graders you want to bring, then I am the person who picks up the phone. I also coordinate any other group (tourists, book clubs, high schoolers, artists, etc.) that wants to visit the Smart for a tour of the galleries. I supervise our docents and am constantly working on how we can make our tours more informative and more engaging, and a large part of that is working directly with K-12 teachers during professional development workshops that I facilitate. In those workshops we discuss strategies for teachers to incorporate the visual arts into their classrooms, whether they teach English or Spanish or math or science.

Which is to say that I don’t really have a “typical day”! At any moment I might be filling out paperwork, on the phone with a group scheduling a tour, painting portraits with middleschoolers, in the galleries discussing German expressionism, dancing around like a dinosaur with pre-schoolers, developing new tours, decorating a cake, motivating a disheartened highschooler, speaking with nurses, etc. – there is a lot to do around here!

Could you describe something about the Smart generally or about your role here specifically that you have found to be saliently special or unique or remarkable or enjoyable?
Well, I have a lot of stories! One favorite is when a young girl was attending one of ourmonthly Family Day activities and nearly blinded me with a pair of scissors! Working with kids – art-making with kids! – is always a great time. Another time, pretty recently, a little boy sat me down (also at a Family Day) and broke it to me that the pastel portrait I was working on was “all wrong, bad, no good!” before proceeding to instruct me on how to properly scribble: not too “scribble scrabble” he said! That little bit of role reversal was hilarious and instructive.

But let me tell you a story about working with classrooms. As part of our Multi-Visit Program, which brings 3rd and 5th grade classrooms to the Smart in a series of field trips with art-making exercises, I was working with a particular school group. To be honest, the first few visits of the sequence with this class were very difficult: the students were bored and distracted; I was grouchy and punitive--not a great learning environment! We sat down with the classroom teacher and discussed what we could change to make the experience meaningful and enjoyable for everyone. We discussed different ways to engage the students and slight changes to the curriculum – for example experimenting with creative writing and poetry – that would appeal to the students and increase engagement. And “engagement” is our rallying cry! The effects of these changes were instant. Our next gallery session was a totally new experience: engaged, fun, focused, productive. I learned more about being a docent from working with those students and that teacher than I have in years of gallery education, and the situation basically boiled down to reminding myself to take the time to be patient, pay attention to the interests and circumstances of the tour group, and to have fun. You can come see artworks made by this school group in response to museum objects as part of Objects and Voices: A Collection of Stories in the spring!

What's the best food or drink on or near campus (and what’s so good about it)?
Well, the new place A10 on 53rd Street has the best cocktails in Hyde Park I think! And you can do a great movie/cocktail date night thing since it is just around the corner from the movie theater. By which I mean, “please someone take me on a movie/cocktail date night.”

If the Smart Museum were an animal, what would it be and why?
Well, the Regenstein Library on campus has always reminded me of a huge, hulking, sleeping rhinoceros. Based on that, maybe the Smart Museum is like an armadillo: smaller, but the slightly imposing concrete exterior is like armor. And if you can get past that armor into the hidden courtyard, you’ll find a weird, scrappy little creature.

David or Alfred (and why)?
David! He seems like the more affable chap for movie/cocktail date night!

Could you pick one to three words from the Smart Museum’s list of core attributes that describe you and/or your time at the Smart and briefly explain why your chosen words fit?
Experimental: It seems like the Smart is always trying new and experimental things, be that in the context of curation or education. And I see my role here as an educator as a process of experimentation to see what works best for our audiences and our collection.

Engaging: Like I said, this is our rallying cry in the Education Department. In everything we do we try to heighten guests ability to engage with our collection, the Museum staff, and the broader community that the Smart serves.

Lively: Do I sense that you are losing interest in this Korean pottery, O disengaged viewer? Well I suppose now is a good time for us to sing a song and do a dance and get a little more LIVELY. HAHA! YES!

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