The big show is more than nine months away, and phones at the Figge already are ringing.

The announcement last month that Davenport's Figge Art Museum is getting a highly recognizable, world-class exhibition this fall created a buzz beyond the art community.

The show, "French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950" is a true coup for the Quad-Cities. Borrowed from the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the exhibition is to be installed for an Oct. 9 to Jan. 6 run.

We all know art is subjective, and there are plenty of styles, mediums and techniques that many of us don't particularly appreciate. But that's rarely the case with this bunch.

Part of the beauty of impressionism, for instance, is that the movement is easy to "get." The paintings not only can be beautiful, but many are recognizable to us from textbooks and massive duplication in media and market.

When the announcement was made, my mind immediately went to the museum's tour guides — the docents. How could this collection of volunteers prepare for such a large exhibit? With an estimated 60 pieces by various artists and over a 100-year period, how do they prepare?

So, I asked.

Bill Gallin, a retired Davenport fifth grade teacher, is chairman for the Figge's 40-or-so docents. He's been at it for six years.

"I have no art background; can't draw a straight line with a ruler," he said. "I never taught art."

But he took many fifth graders to field trips at the Figge, and he found himself hooked.

"I feel like I've gotten a master's degree in art history, and it was free," Gallin said.

As with any education, though, he has paid the price in research and study. Figge staffers and even some artists provide docent training, but they acquire much of their knowledge on their own.

"The more training we get, the happier we are," he said.

Melissa Mohr, director of education for the Figge, said the docents are likely to have their hands full with the French Moderns, because so many people will want to see them. It's likely that tours will be in high demand.

"We already have teachers calling to inquire about school tours," Mohr said. "In my eight years here, this is the first time a massive (scheduling) spread sheet is in the works so soon."

It's not so much the quantity of pieces in the exhibit that could tax the docents, she said. The real challenge is in the span of time that is covered — a whole century — along with the multiple artists and movements. For instance, after impressionism came abstract works.

"The docents already are familiar with the artists, just like so many of us are," she said. "But every one of the docents also does individual research. We haven't polled them on their favorites, but who doesn't love this exhibition?

"Many of our docents travel to see these big exhibits, and here we are, bringing this here. I have heard a number of people squeal. This is such a cool opportunity for us."

Gallin said he and many other docents already have ordered the souvenir book that is sold as a companion to the exhibition, which they'll use to study. They'll also get the usual guidance from Figge staffers, and they'll make use of, "an in-house, Wikipedia-like note-sharing site" the docents have been compiling. It contains a multitude of information and colorful factoids about many artists and their works.

"I'm hoping we can really start building on that, and this show is a good opportunity for it," he said.

But no one, including the best-trained docent, can know everything about such a large and important exhibition. Some tours will have docents looking at the works as a whole and others will focus more keenly on specific aspects of it, say, technique or a specific artist.

And every docent has a different approach.

"Some like to talk about the artists' perspective and about shadows, lines and composition," Gallin said. "Others like to talk about the emotion. I'm more of a storyteller.

"It's a big show, no doubt. We're likely to have more tours than ever. I like to read the journals that we have in the galleries for guests to write their comments. A lot of people are surprised at what a gem we have here in the Figge.

"And now this."

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or