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The CAC is proud to celebrate 50 years of its field-leading docent program in 2021 with “Looking Up,” a series of articles, fun facts and more published throughout this special anniversary.

By CAC President and CEO Lynn Osmond

I am not sure that anyone in 1971 would have thought that our docent program would become world-renowned, nor that we would be celebrating it during a global pandemic.

Our docents are what make the CAC unique. It is their voices that tell stories of our city and its architectural legacy to residents and visitors from around the world. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and they have cultivated the skills to translate what could be complex subject matter for lay audiences. As I like to say, they give people “a new set of glasses” through which to see their own cities differently—whether they are from Dubuque, Iowa; London, England; or right here in Chicago.

I have had the tremendous pleasure to work with our docent corps and its committees for 24 years in my capacity as CAC President and CEO. They are a highly engaged group of individuals, committed to Chicago as well as to the CAC, and they take their roles very seriously. Even becoming a docent is a major commitment: Twelve weeks of docent training require investing as many as 350 hours between course time, homework and tour practice. Once each docent completes their training, they literally “talk the talk” and “walk the walk.” We do not give them a script—they develop their own narratives about the city, respecting key buildings and learning principles that must be incorporated into all CAC-sanctioned tours. That is what makes our program so effective and influential. Each docent’s personality and methods of interpretation bring unique flavors to their tours.

But their commitment does not stop there. The CAC’s docent council is an elected body that governs membership and various committees, for example: The tour committee is responsible for reviewing proposals for new tours that are then developed by docents. The education committee sets learning objectives for the docents. And the standards committee makes sure that all docents perform consistently with excellence. The rigor and professionalism of their work do not go unnoticed.

What I find so delightful about the docents is their curiosity and joie de vivre. Few docents come to the CAC with backgrounds in architecture but through the training course—plus their interactions with one another and professionals in the field—they become aficionados and ambassadors, eager to help tour attendees dive deeper into whatever sparks their interest. They are passionate and love to share their knowledge and expertise with the public, disciples of what Chicago can teach us and a wellspring of civic pride.

Today, the CAC is honored to count 450 active docents on its roster and, over the past half-century, more than 1,250 have served in some capacity. They are beautiful, generous threads in the fabric of our city and part of our DNA as “the city of architecture.” The Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize−winning Blair Kamin rightly observed Chicago is a city of architecture critics and, as architect Santiago Calatrava once commented during a guest lecture, the CAC invented architectural tourism. I am inclined to believe what they say is true and it is exciting to imagine the possibilities for the next 50 years, thanks to the continued work of our incredible CAC docents!

Subscribe to the free digital mini magazine CAC@Home to catch future installments of “Looking Up,” the CAC’s yearlong celebration of its docent program’s 50th anniversary.