This is a story that, for obvious reasons, has gotten almost no airplay in Chicago, and none nationally, with no reporting in the major media. So let me tell you about it.
The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), one of the world’s finest art museums, harbors (or rather, harbored) 122 highly skilled docents, 82 active ones and 40 “school group greeters.” All are volunteers and are all unpaid. Their job is to act as guides to the Museum’s collection of 300,000 works, which they explain to both adults and schoolchildren. I’ve seen them in action at the Museum, and they’re terrific.
Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families. Their average length of service: 15 years. There are other requirements listed by the Docents Council in the ChicagoNow column below (first screenshot).
Many of the volunteers—though not all—are older white women, who have the time and resources to devote so much free labor to the Museum. But the demographics of that group weren’t appealing to the AIC, and so, in late September, the AIC fired all of them, saying they’d be replaced by smaller number of hired
volunteers workers who will be paid $25 an hour. That group will surely meet the envisioned diversity goals.
This is entirely a matter of race and “optics,” though you wouldn’t easily discern that by reading the back-and-forth communications between the AIC and the docents. The latter, of course, strenuously object to being let go, and in their letter to the AIC point out their many contributions to the Museum. (The AIC, in a hamhanded gesture, offered them two-year free passes to the AIC as a measly “thank you”.)
The lack of ethnic diversity apparently comes from the fact that this is volunteer work that takes a ton of time, and disadvantaged minorities aren’t often blessed with the time or resources for such work. The AIC says they’ve tried to diversity the docents but have apparently failed (listen to the radio show below).
It’s all a mess, but I know this: it’s grossly unfair and inimical to the education of museum-goers. More than 1200 years of work put in by the current docents, and all that expertise: gone in an instant. Ask yourself first, do they need to diversity? I don’t know the answer, though surely some minority docents might have different points of view about art, a reason implied by the AIC’s response in the Tribune. (But ask yourself what the reaction would be if all the docents were black or Hispanic and they hired whites to get a “white point of view”? Personally, I’m not sure race is crucial in giving expert talks about the Museum’s exhibits.) But the AIC did try to diversity the docents—and failed. They’re to be commended for that because, after all, surely it would look better to have a diverse group of docents. They just weren’t able, given the demographics, to accomplish that.
What can they do? My own suggestion is to keep the docents, but as they retire replace some of them with members of minority groups. The problem with that, though, is that they tried doing this already, and apparently couldn’t find appropriate docents. I think the solution of replacing the docents with a smaller and more “diverse” group of paid guides, however, is not only insulting to the docents, but a bad move for the Museum’s reputation and especially for the education of those who go to the AIC. There will have to be many fewer tours, and with a much less well-trained group of guides.
If readers have a solution to this problem, assuming it is a problem pressing enough to fire every docent, then please give your suggestions below.
The curious thing about all this is that it wasn’t reported as a primary story by either the Chicago Tribune or WBEZ (the local Public Radio Station), and yet the Trib ran a strong editorial excoriating the AIC for its firings, and WBEZ had a show giving the views of the the President of the Docent Council versus those of of a VP of the AIC. Much of the fallout eventually appeared in the Tribune, but it is likely paywalled for you.
You can read the salient details in the column at ChicagoNow by Dennis Byrne(click on screenshot below). Byrne pulls no punches in his sympathy for the docents and ire at the AIC, but he also includes two documents pivotal in this fracas: the September 3 letter from the AIC’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein firing the docents, and the long response of the docent’s council, sent not to Stein but to AIC director James Rondeau. (The AIC didn’t even have the decency to get Rondeau to give the docents their pink slip.)
If you want to read the Tribune’s two pieces on the story, they’re here (but probably paywalled): the paper’s long editorial excoriating the AIC for firing the docents (I guess the Trib isn’t all that woke), called “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents,” and a response from Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC board, who argues that the times are a’changing and they need a new demographic, but then dances around the issue of race. He claims that the AIC’s editorial makes serious mistakes, but there’s no smoking gun there.
Finally, there were also several letters to the editor reaming out the AIC for what it did.
The link below will take you to WBEZ’s free 16-minute show in which a moderator interviews both Sarah Guernsey, deputy director and senior vice president for curatorial affairs of the AIC, and Gigi Vaffis, president of Docent Council at Art Institute of Chicago. Again, Guernsey doesn’t have the moxie to explicitly discuss the reason for the firing, and comes off to me as being a weasel.