Jeanne Ross

Jeanne Ross, a retired businesswoman from Kearney, received History Nebraska’s 2019 Heritage Hero Award for her 20 years of volunteer work at MONA. Among other duties, she leads schoolchildren through the museum and kindles their interest in art.

KEARNEY — Jeanne Ross was deeply humbled Oct. 28 when she received History Nebraska’s 2019 Heritage Hero Award for her 20 years of volunteer work at MONA.

“I cannot think of one reason why I should be recognized in this way,” she said. “The docents here at MONA are all hard workers. They’re all very creative. I guess it shows that if you last long enough, someone will recognize you.”

But Gina Garden, MONA’s marketing director, had no trouble praising Ross’s energy, drive and intangible gifts to the museum.

“She is the kind of docent that museums dream of having, the archetypal perfect volunteer. She’s selfless, kind and passionate about the role MONA should have within the community,” Garden said. “Her broad gracious smile, energy, thoughtfulness and calm demeanor are rock-steady, and we are truly in her debt. This our small way of saying thank you.”

The award was one of 43 given across the state by History Nebraska to outstanding volunteers of cultural organizations who preserve and share the history of their regions.

Wide-eyed enthusiasm

After just a few minutes with Ross, her fresh enthusiasm bubbles to the surface.

As a docent, she said her “most important” role is leading classes in grades K-12 on one-hour visits through the museum.

Docents focus on one piece of art in each of MONA’s four galleries, spending roughly 15 minutes on each picture. Rather than lecturing, docents encourage the children to share what they see in the art.

“I tell the kids that the artist is telling a story. What do you think he’s telling us? What’s going on in picture?” she said. “For example, if a painting shows people having a picnic, I say, ‘I see swings. I see picnickers.’ Then I say, ‘What do you see? What can you find in this picture?’”

She added, “I don’t think kids want to sit and listen. They want to be involved. A good docent is the one who gets kids to interact with the art.”

She said MONA’s asking-questions approach is relatively new and paying off.

“The beauty of this is there are no wrong answers. The more abstract the piece of art is, the more kids get into it and offer their own interpretation. Children feel free to interpret — and the stories they tell me! I often think, ‘I never saw that in a piece of art!’”

Docents — “the arm of education at MONA,” she said — refrain from reacting to a child’s interpretation, so “the children feel free to take risks in answering because all answers are accepted.”

Not only has research validated this approach, she said, but it relieves the burden of docents having to know everything about a piece of art. “Children leave MONA remembering a piece of art. They remember the experience, rather than just learning about the galleries and all the art in them.”

She also has led MONA’s presentations for adults, and for teenagers from the YRTC. “The YRTC kids often know more about art than we do, especially Native American art, which many of them grew up with,” Ross said.

Rich professional life

Ross grew up in Omaha, graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa, taught first grade in Omaha and met and married Bill Ross, a student at the Creighton University School of Law. They moved to Kearney, where they’ve lived for 60 years.

After her three children were in school, Ross worked on-air at NTV introducing the morning movie. She loved that job, but when the station was sold, the staff was replaced.

Next, she taught speech at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “I had no educational background, but that job motivated me to get my master’s degree in speech communication,” she said.

She then started a business with Dean Curtis called Curtis & Associates teaching job skills to unemployed people. Eventually, the company expanded to 15 states from coast to coast. As its co-founder and president, Ross traveled two weeks a month. She loved that, too.

When she retired 20 years ago, she grew so restless that within six months she became a docent at MONA. “When you’ve been active in the business world, you want to keep busy,” she said.

And keep busy she has.

Ross co-chaired MONA’s “Spirit: A Celebration of Art in the Heartland” event in 2002. She has chaired Kaleidoscope, MONA’s annual holiday market. She volunteered in the Anne Thorne Weaver Museum Shop for a decade.

She was involved in the MONA Guild’s October “Cabaret” event and the redesign and dedication of the Carl Spelts Lobby. She donated to the purchase of the large wood gallery benches used by MONA visitors. She also has helped organize docent trips.

Ross said she works with a “fabulous group of people” and “incredible leadership” at MONA. “This is lifelong learning, mini-art appreciation, and the training is fabulous. I had no idea the friends I’d meet. Watching the staff operate a museum like this and meeting the artists ... it has blown me away how much fun this has been,” she said.

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