Docent points out details in painting to visiting patrons.

Living Maps to Brenau’s Treasures

Did you know that one of the most interesting pieces in Brenau’s permanent art collection is a tissue drawing by a famous artist in which he explains another of his pieces in the collection? There are some people around who can tell you all about it.

ForeverGold logoDuring the past quarter century Brenau University amassed one of the finest art collections held by any educational institution in the Southeast. It permanently displays installed artwork by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler and many more at all of its seven locations in Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. Throughout the year Brenau also uses a mix of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture from its collection of works by artists like Jasper Johns, John Heliker and a plethora of others from around the world for curated exhibitions in gallery spaces in Gainesville that are open to students and the public.

But how does one navigate such a trove without one of those mythical tell-all treasure maps?

Don’t worry. You now have help from a trusted guide.

The Brenau Galleries Docent Program, created by Galleries Director Nichole Rawlings, recruits volunteers from the Gainesville community who not only learn more about what resides within the permanent art collection, but who also share this knowledge with others. They help lead tours, answer questions about the artwork and create a friendly, welcoming, educational atmosphere for visitors exploring the galleries – some of whom may know something about art and others who are complete novices.

Patrons and a docent look at a painting in the Brenau Presidents Gallery.
Docent Chris Nearing, in red, leads a group through the fall exhibition in Brenau’s Presidents Gallery. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
You really learn when you share knowledge…’
– Anne Chenault, 2017 Galleries Docent

“It’s really been an educational thing for me,” says LaMerle Loveland, a new docent to Brenau. “I knew a little bit about art, and I have taken Nichole’s classes before, so it’s reinforced and made me go out and research art for ideas about art. To come back and see it in action is really great. You meet such interesting people [giving tours], and people come in and look and their first reaction is, ‘What is this?’ And when you start talking to them about it, it reminds them of something and they become engaged. It’s good to see people go out much more enthusiastic than when they came in.”

Brenau Galleries include the Leo Castelli Gallery in the John S. Burd Center for Performing Arts, the Manhattan Gallery at the Brenau Downtown Center and the Presidents and Sellars Galleries in the Simmons Visual Arts Center. Rawlings designed the training to give her charges an appreciation for art while preventing them from feeling overwhelmed. Over the course of three training sessions of two hours each, docents-in-training get a crash course in art history, tours of the galleries and plenty of training materials to make them feel comfortable and prepared to speak about whichever exhibition is currently showcased.

Novice docents, as well as their tour groups, are surprised to discover that despite Brenau’s 138-year existence, it had no official gallery space until 1985, more than 100 years after the university’s foundation. When John S. Burd became Brenau’s eighth president, he inaugurated the Brenau Permanent Art Collection in 1986, with the first collection entry being a still-life painting by American artist William Merritt Chase. After 30 years, the collection now boasts approximately 6,500 unique paintings, sculptures, sketches and installations.

Left to right, Chris Nearing, Susan Lahey and Bev Hall in the Presidents Gallery.
Left to right, Chris Nearing, Susan Lahey and Bev Hall in the Presidents Gallery.

In 1990, the campus library at the time was converted into the Simmons Visual Arts Center, which became the hub for student, faculty, alumni and visiting artists’ art exhibitions. Twelve years later, construction was completed on the John S. Burd Center for the Performing Arts, named in honor of Dr. Burd and all of his efforts to further Brenau’s artistic endeavors. The Burd Center houses the Leo Castelli Gallery – dedicated to well-known New York gallery dealer Castelli, who served on Brenau’s Board of Trustees from 1991 to 1999. Brenau’s relationship with Castelli was a door to acquiring many pop-art exhibitions in that gallery space, including exhibiting a print of American Center, Paris by Augusta, Georgia, native Jasper Johns, who donated the print in honor of his two aunts who were both Brenau alums. Johns even gifted to Dr. Burd a hand-drawn diagram on tracing paper to detail the print’s subject matter, which is considered a very rare item. Over the years, Brenau has held several exhibitions of Johns’ work, most recently in January-March 2016 in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the commencement of Brenau’s acclaimed art galleries programs.

When Brenau acquired the Georgia Mountain Center (now the Brenau Downtown Center) in 2012, the most recent gallery space, the Manhattan Gallery, was established and became home to more than 100 artworks from the 5,000-piece Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Collection donated by Dorothy Vogel. The gallery also contains selections from the Warhol Foundation, including paintings and photography by Andy Warhol, as well as the work of Hunt Slonum, renowned for his abstract expressionism, representational imagery and depictions of tropical birds and other animals.

Former President Jimmy Carter signed Brenau University's print of a Jimmy Carter portrait done by Andy Warhol after his question and answer session with the school's first-year students.
Former President Jimmy Carter signed Brenau University’s print of a Jimmy Carter portrait done by Andy Warhol. The print is part of the Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Collection.

And that is just the abridged notes of Brenau’s rich gallery history. This explains why you might see a few nervous expressions on the faces of the docents-in-training – how does one not only memorize but then effectively relay all of this to gallery visitors?

Rawlings and Gallery Manager Allison Lauricella teach the classes to both new faces in the docent program, as well as to veterans of previous training exercises. The vets also help teach the rookies, sharing with them speaking techniques, the kinds of introductions they use with touring groups and where to find additional art education resources.

Elaine Gowder, WC ’72, signed up for the inaugural docent class four years ago. “We visited all the places on campus that had art, even the offices,” says Gowder. “ I’ve been here ever since. All the art galleries we have here are exquisite.”

Anne Chenault, a retired early childhood teacher, discovered that her experience in teaching transferred well into becoming a docent. “This is my third year, and I’m delighted to be involved in it,” Chenault says. “Once you’re a teacher, you always enjoy learning, and you really learn when you share your knowledge with someone else.”

For more information on the Brenau Galleries Docent Program, contact Allison Lauricella at 770.534.6263 or

Photo by AJ Reynolds/Brenau University
Photo by AJ Reynolds/Brenau University
2 Responses to “Living Maps to Brenau’s Treasures”
  1. Kathy Amos says:

    To clarify – while the program has grown and flourished under her direction, the docent program was not created by Nichole Rawlings. The program’s beginnings were in a collaboration between Wisdom Project graduate Evelyn Whitten, who had proposed the idea for a program as her capstone volunteer project, the BULLI program and the former gallery director. Evelyn recruited volunteers, worked with the director to create a docent handbook, organized training sessions and led the volunteer group.

    Chris Nearing, LaMerle Loveland and Elaine Gowder are all BULLI students.

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