Thompson By Lorrie Flom
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
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
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.
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
Besides reading, I’ve done quite a bit
of watercolor painting myself, especially for my grandchildren,
request things like gorillas. My funniest request was from
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.