HomeSuscribe TodayBack IssuesMembershipCarnegie Museums of PittsburghMedia Kit










Harry Thompson

A retired lawyer with a lifelong interest in art, Harry Thompson spent his legal career working in the trust and probate departments of PNC and Mellon Banks. He subsequently spent 12 years as the managing director of the Drue Heinz Trust, where he was first able to put his interest in the arts to work helping to establish the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art, a memorial to Drue Heinz’s late husband, Henry J. Heinz II. When Harry retired, he decided to turn his casual interest into a serious pursuit by enrolling in the docent-training course at Carnegie Museum of Art. Today, as one of only four male docents and the chair of the museum’s Fellows group, Harry’s passing fancy has become a true love.

As an attorney with an expertise in federal and estate tax work, what prompted you to become a docent at Carnegie Museum of Art?
I was always interested in art and, being raised in Pittsburgh, spent a lot of time in the museums growing up. On Saturdays I took drawing and painting classes at the Museum of Art, and I thought it was fun to be a part of the art milieu—so different from being a student at Wilkinsburg High School. But I never studied art history or pursued it further until a month after I retired, when I noticed that a class for docent training was starting at the Museum of Art, and I thought, “why not”? I interviewed with the docent staff to see if they’d accept me—and they did. So, off I went.

What’s involved in becoming a Museum of Art docent?
First, let me say that the docent-training program is a great educational resource, and anyone who’s interested in becoming a docent should be prepared to spend some serious time and effort and not commit to it lightly. I had to take a series of classes that lasted 18 months and included a variety of lectures from professors at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham College. The lectures were three hours long on Mondays. Then, Marilyn Russell, the Museum of Art’s curator of education, and her staff provided information about the museum’s collections. During the week, we did a lot of reading to prepare for tests, much like being in college. And, of course, we did practice tours.

What do you enjoy most about being a docent?
There’s a lot of camaraderie among the docents. While there are many more women than men in the program, we all have the same interests—and we help each other. Quite candidly, I like the learning process, and I like the exchange with people on the tours. Oftentimes, their interests will lead the design of the tour—and sometimes people in the tour group know more about the subject than I do, and they help me out. I also like taking children on tours. We’re usually asked to link works in the museum to a topic they’re studying, such as Greek and Roman mythology, architecture, or history, and every once in a while you run into kids who are so effervescent and enthusiastic about what they’re learning that it really makes the tour exciting.

Can you share a story about one of your most memorable tours?
I suddenly became acutely aware of the impact of pop culture when I was doing a tour on Ancient Civilizations for a group of fourth graders. We were looking at the Egyptian collection, talking about gods and goddesses, and we stopped by a statue. One of the kids shouted, “That’s Thoth!” When I asked how he knew, he said, “Well, everyone’s seen the movie, The Mummy Returns.”

As the chair of the Museum of Art Fellows, can you explain what the group is and does?
The Fellows is a group of people who cherish the Museum of Art. The group was originally created to provide money for acquisitions, but our role has evolved over the years. Today, instead of funding individual acquisitions, the Fellows provide funds to help create exhibitions with the goal of drawing visitors to the museum. Director Richard Armstrong comes to our meetings to describe the exhibitions the museum is planning in the coming months; then The Fellows are invited to special previews, trips to other museums, and parties at members’ homes to see some of the artwork, all to raise interest and funding for future shows. We currently have 110 members, but we’re always looking for more.

Do you have a favorite artist or type of art?
My favorite painter is John Singer Sargent. Although he was a society painter, I like his brushwork and think of him as an “Impressionist interpreter.” I especially enjoy Sargent’s watercolors. As far as light and movement, he really hits the nail on the head. That’s why I think of his work as part of the Impressionist genre.

I also like contemporary art—we have a small collection at home. I think I enjoy it because so much of the art of former centuries is art history, while the new art is a reflection of our world today. And I always enjoy the Carnegie International and seeing the new experimental art that comes through.

When you’re not spending time at the Museum of Art, what do you enjoy doing?
I like to read—anything from the bestsellers list and the New York Times Review of Books. I particularly enjoy reading about early 19th-century naval warfare, and I also read a lot about art to try to keep abreast of what’s going on.

Besides reading, I’ve done quite a bit of watercolor painting myself, especially for my grandchildren, who usually request things like gorillas. My funniest request was from my
5-year-old grandson who asked for a painting of the Hindenburg in flames. I complied, but I promised my daughter that I wouldn’t paint any bodies falling out of it. Today it hangs, framed, in my grandson’s bedroom.

Back | Top