The Wall Street Journal on the firing of the Art Institute’s docents; and a personal observation

October 17, 2021 • 10:45 am

A week ago I wrote a piece on the firing of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (AIC’s) 122 volunteer (unpaid) docents, who were let go because they were not sufficiently “diverse”. The Art Institute now plans to hire fewer docents who will be paid $25 per hour, with much less training, to guide people around the museum. They will surely be ethnically more diverse than the jettisoned docents, who were largely older white women—some of them donors to the AIC.

My post on that got the most attention, in terms of views, of any post over the last several years. Have a gander:

I couldn’t figure out why, but one explanation is that the media, including the local media, didn’t cover it, probably because the AIC’s actions, though reprehensible, are not unusual in today’s “racial reckoning”, but didn’t have very good “optics”. The Chicago Tribune didn’t even report it as news until the paper published an editorial damning the AIC for what it did, “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents.” And then the Trib published a lame response from Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC board, followed by a few letters to the editor criticizing the AIC. and a short and inconclusive discussion on WBEZ, the local public radio station, featuring a representative of the AIC and the docents.

That’s pretty much all the reporting from “MSM”. The most comprehensive coverage was in fact an article by Dennis Byrne on his website at ChicagoNow.com, The Barbershop, which reproduced the letter firing the docents and the group’s response to being ditched.  That site is not read by as many people as is the MSM, so I suppose people glommed on to my summary as a news article. Conservative news did pick it up, but you still won’t find boo about it in papers like the NYT or Washington Post. That’s a shame, because the AIC’s action should kindle a debate about the ethics and tactics of how the AIC acted, and about how to achieve “racial reckoning”. (As many readers observed, there are ways to diversity the docents without firing any of them.)

Now the Wall Street Journal, whose readers surely include many potential donors to the AIC, has written an op-ed outlining the story. Though the WSJ is conservative in its op-eds, and criticizing the AIC has been something largely limited to right-wing papers, this editorial gets the facts right and isn’t aren’t nearly as hard on the AIC as was the Chicago Tribune. You can try to read it by clicking below (judicious inquiry might yield you a copy should you fail), but you won’t learn much more than what Byrne and I put in our posts.

However, here are two items from that op-ed that were new to me:

  • The chairman of the AIC, Robert Levy “insisted that the plan had been in the works for 12 years.”  If that’s true, the man is reprehensible, for the docents were given no warning; they were fired by an email from the AIC’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein. Seriously, you don’t tell the docents that their termination is being considered? Who does that?
  • A quote from a docent:

“It was nearly a full-time job,” said Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012. (Ms. Klevorn was the only docent who agreed to speak to the Journal, rejecting the institute’s request that they not talk to the media.) “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together,” she continued. “We had to be very comprehensive about everything as we talked with them, moving through the space.”

As I said, the WSJ isn’t nearly as intemperate about the AIC as was the local paper, but it does have a no-nonsense conclusion that also raises the possibility of a phased-in increase in diversity:

Still, the Art Institute hasn’t explained why they had to be jettisoned en masse and not diversified over time. The museum appears to be in the grips of a self-defeating overcorrection. It has adopted the language of diversity, inclusion and equity so completely that it was willing to fire the same upper-middle class volunteers it relies on for charitable donations.

Changes to the program may mean that the museum connects to younger and more diverse visitors, Ms. Klevorn said, but it will come at a cost. The Art Institute “will offer far less opportunity for people to have human docents taking them through the museum.”

In their public statements, both Ms. Stein and Mr. Levy referenced their understanding of the museum’s civic role. Mr. Levy even condemned critics as “egregiously anti-civic,” as though objecting to diversity quotas meant rejecting the nation’s civic institutions. What they don’t seem to understand is that those civic institutions have always relied on the volunteer work of women with enough public spirit to donate their time and enough money to afford to do so. These wealthy women form the mortar of the nation’s civic institutions, and we’ll miss them when they’re gone.

In the name of what they call civic-minded diversity, the museum has thrown overboard a group of people who actually see it as their duty to help the public understand art. That’s not very civic-minded, is it?

That’s not rabidly right-wing, either, is it?  But the piece, appearing in a widely-read venue, isn’t going to do the AIC any good.

But I want to say a few things. Though for several days my site got six to eight times the normal traffic, all because of that AIC piece, and though there were 157 comments, there would have been a lot more comments had I let all the nasty or racist ones through. Yes, there were white supremacist comments, and a lot of people being strident about “reverse racism”.

I let some of those appear, depending on their civility, but I don’t see diversifying the AIC docents as “reverse racism.” Yes, you can characterize it that way, because you’re discriminating in favor of people of color and against whites, but I see it more as a form of reparations rather than demonization.  If you’re in favor of any kind of affirmative action, you can be accused of reverse racism. I’m willing to bear the epithet because I favor some forms of affirmative action. But I hasten to add that the AIC’s mass firing of docents, rather than a program that increases diversity as docents retire, is cruel and hamhanded. However, their desire to diversify the staff is not. (That diversity, by the way, should include class as well as race, as there are few “regular people” docents. And that means paying all the docents, unless some are willing to work for free while others get a paycheck.)

I’m for a reasoned dialogue on race and equity, but some of the comments I got sound just like things that would come out of the mouths of Proud Boys. My conclusion is that there is a lot of pent-up anger about DEI initiatives. Some of it is justified by actions like the AIC’s firing, but there’s definitely an element of racism in some of the comments you didn’t see. And that makes me sad.

You want an example? Here’s one from someone named “Steve”, who’s apostrophe-deprived:

Wake Up White People.

This is what your future will be if you dont start standing up for yourselves and quit being such stupid pushovers.

Don’t let these SCUM guilt you….
Be PROUD to be White….I AM.
Our ancestors/people accomplished 1000x more than any other race. They hate us out of sheer jealousy. And make NO MISTAKE….They DO hate us….HATE US !!!!

Start speaking up!!!!
There is NO SUCH THING as “White Privilege” Its called HARD WORK.

All the Lefts HATRED and Marxist “key Words” are just meant to divide us.

Just remember…. The Left Project and Deflect…
They call everyone else Fascist or Racist… Because that is what THEY ARE….

-S

There are others like this.

And one more just came in while I was writing this; from one “swimologist”:

The ONLY effort that should be made is hiring competent people, race be damned. Many companies used to have aptitude tests for hiring, but reliably low-I.Q. blacks failed them, and lawsuits were filed claiming “disparate impact,” so NOW we these same companies require degrees for jobs that don’t NEED them. Just another way the black undertow plague drags America down.

Writing this website has a downside you don’t see: all the racists, loons, and rude people that infest America and feel they have to have their say here.

h/t: cesar

27 thoughts on “The Wall Street Journal on the firing of the Art Institute’s docents; and a personal observation

  1. I believe in making recompense where there has been injury. It seems, though, that the Art Institute has not been excluding minorities from positions as docents. If it had, then opening up positions for minorities would make sense. Indeed, I don’t doubt that, if AIC had gone to their docents and said “we’ve been wrong to exclude minorities and need to open up positions,” there would have been docents who would have volunteered to step aside. At the same time, since they are unpaid, I don’t think there would be anything to stop AIC from just adding more positions. Dismissing all the existing docents seems more like an injury itself than it does reparations. At the end of the day, the docents were dismissed because they were white. If any other group were dismissed because of their skin color, we’d be calling that racist. I do believe it is unjust to exclude white people generally on the basis of past discrimination elsewhere. Certainly, if the docents had actually been employees, they would have a hell of a court case.

  2. “Reverse racism” is a concept that seems to advance the notion that racism toggles one direction, from so-called “whites” to so-called “people of color”. Baloney. Racism is racism. It is simply one human being being prejudiced toward another based on visual differences that we have explained using the term “race”. It may or may not include a power component. Accepting the notion of reverse racism gives rhetorical power to folks who make a living stoking human divisions in order to garner more power for themselves and the groups they are trying to help. It’s time to weld that rhetorical spigot permanently shut and call it what it is.

    1. As I have noted elsewhere (probably ad nauseum), any statement of the form:

      All X people are Y

      Where X is a racial group into which a person was born and Y is any non-trivial trait, is nearly perfectly distilled racism. It would be very hard to find a statement more concise that has a higher concentration of racism in it.

      And yet, people like I. Kendi quite happily say all white people are racist, with a straight face and even a little of that smug, talking-head chuckle.

  3. “…Still, the Art Institute hasn’t explained why they had to be jettisoned en masse and not diversified over time.”

    Because the motive is not to racially ‘diversify’ the current docent team. It is to replace the worldview of docent training with cultural Marxism. The ‘new team’ will be picked for ability and willingness to explain the art from that perspective.

    After all, universities graduate wave after wave of woke/progressives, and jobs have to be created for them.

    1. That’s quite the assumption you appear to be making. Any evidence, other than your own ideological certainty, for your assertion?

      1. Yes, it is true that I provide no evidence that — along with hiring a new team — the education/training currently in place for decades will be thrown out (or thoroughly trashed), replaced with post-modernist wokeish neo-CulturalMarxist propaganda.’

        I guess some might think a more certain assumption (there is no promise of this by AIC) is this: ‘Don’t worry everyone, the training will stay the same, even if vastly watered down in depth. The only thing we want to change is the proportional representation of the docents by race.’

        So, that’s two assumptions. Anyone want to bet on the training content comparison — historical vs the coming new training worldview and curriculum?

        [add …]
        If the training is to stay the same, why doesn’t the AIC simply perform outreach, engage people of color on affirmative action basis, and gradually get the quota balance right over time, thus preserving a spectacularly successful system?

  4. However, their desire to diversify the staff is not. […] And that means paying all the docents, unless some are willing to work for free while others get a paycheck.

    This sort of thing needs a cost–benefit analysis, since the money to pay the docents has to come from somewhere.

    I assume the case for diversified docents is that minority kids are more likely to be inspired by a docent of the same race, and so more likely to identify with the museum and thus benefit from the visit. OK, good argument.

    But I don’t accept that only a docent of the same race can inspire a minority kid. So, suppose a white 60-yr-old docent is only half as likely to inspire a black kid than a 30-yr-old black docent. But, owing to the need to pay them, there are only a quarter as many docents, so only a quarter as many minority kids get any docent at all. That leaves you with half the number of inspired black kids. Not good.

    My numbers are made up, of course, but if they’re trying to actually benefit minority kids (as oppose to just trying to virtue signal), they need to have done some analysis along these lines.

  5. People can be pretty casual about how their political positions affect strangers, especially people who are far away or very different than they are.
    But the docents at the AIC are pretty relatable, especially to middle/upper class white women. Many of them are active in or donors to similar institutions or charities. Many of us have family members who were similarly active.
    So, when I read the story, it is pretty easy to imagine this happening to Mom. And all those White women who have volunteered or worked at all the museums, gardens, symphony halls, and other cultural venues see that they might be next.
    I am sure that a great many such people have convinced themselves that the movement has only displaced people who are actually complicit in racism or oppression. This incident is an illustration that this is not the case.
    “I might well be next” is a very uncomfortable thought to ponder.

  6. The AIC docents were described as ” largely older white women”. The docent population thus does not reflect the exact proportions of the Chicago population either in age, race, or sex, and presumably not in class identity either. This violates the principle of perfect, administered equity, sacred in the catechism of the holy trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. For that matter, the docents were all volunteers, thus also violating the principle that virtue exists only through its enforcement by a virtuous administration. When we arrive at the truly woke Utopia, there will be no more volunteers— except those who are ordered to volunteer by the clerisy of D, E, and I. And, as poster #3 points out, many lay positions in society will also have to be created for acolytes of the faith.

  7. It’s kind of like going into the expensive part of town where all the houses are in the million dollar price range and then complaining there are no domestic cars around. You see Mercedes and Lexus all over the place but no Chevies or Fords. We should repo all those cars and offer them you know what. We must diversify and do it quickly.

  8. Many companies used to have aptitude tests for hiring, but reliably low-I.Q. blacks failed them, and lawsuits were filed claiming “disparate impact,” so NOW we these same companies require degrees for jobs that don’t NEED them.

    All quite true. I suppose he’s referring to that awful Supreme Court decision, Griggs v Duke, which resulted in credentialism based on expensive but possibly otherwise useless college degrees.

    Amy Wax: “In the interim since Griggs, social scientists have generated evidence undermining two key assumptions behind that decision and its progeny.”

    The associated fact ‘n’ fun filled 90+ page PDF might result in a good night’s sleep.

  9. “Writing this website has a downside you don’t see: all the racists, loons, and rude people that infest America and feel they have to have their say here.” – Sincere thanks to our host for providing this service and ensuring a rare space that is free of the incivility that is typically found below the line elsewhere.

  10. My mother was a docent at the Art Institute during the 1960’s and early 1970’s so I can’t speak to the current situation but here’s how it was then:
    1. You had to apply and be accepted;
    2. She took about 12-18 months worth of courses at the Art Institute which were comparable to an MA degree before she could begin;
    3. She constantly trained beyond that, both at home and at the AI.
    4. She was a suburban widow, driving in twice a week to conduct school tours;
    5. Her tours were primarily children from the Chicago and from underprivileged areas, most of whom had never set foot in a museum before;
    6. She included, whenever possible, the African collections.

    When she moved to New Orleans and offered her services there, the museum (NOMA) was amazed by her training and expertise garnered at the AI and she was pivotal in the success of the TUT Show in New Orleans (compared to the disaster in Chicago).

    Paying the docents, IMO, won’t make any difference. Perhaps recruiting in different communities might increase the diversity of the docents, but reducing their training certainly won’t enhance the children’s learning experiences.

  11. These Docents underwent extensive and ongoing studies, so they could share their love of the fine arts with the Museum’s visitors. That is a good thing. Whatever their color, age, financial situation.

    So take something of love and light and destroy it.

    If the belief is that young people, or any person, cannot learn from someone who doesn’t look like them, if that is the message, our Society is in big trouble. Because no one will learn. IF the belief is that more people of all backgrounds should be represented in the Teaching pool, that’s great. But do it in an intelligent manner…train the trainer, more openings for teaching positions. Provide a stipend. Don’t destroy a good, adjust it.

    Very disappointed in this Museum. I had it on my bucket list to visit, but after hearing what went on, I’ll save myself the trip.

  12. “Ms. Klevorn was the only docent who agreed to speak to the Journal, rejecting the institute’s request that they not talk to the media.”

    That the institute makes such a request and apparently perceives that the docents owe the institute that consideration – a consideration the institute was not inclined to give the docents – suggests a breath-taking sense of entitlement.

    1. I am, or was a docent at the AI. Just to set the record straight, I want to say that the Art Institute did not tell the docents to refrain from comment to the media. What ever information was given to the media was given freely and honestly.

  13. All the points are so valid.
    How can you “fire” a volunteer?

    As is much of the arts, they have been treating them like staff, but aren’t paying them as staff.
    Hmmm. Maybe that’s the root of the issue? Just throwing out that idea.

    Theatres are going through that reckoning now with unpaid interns doing the job of staff, with hard hours and no pay.

    With all the requirements needed to “Volunteer” it looks very much the same reliance on free labor to make a not for profit “look good” and to displace workers (save money). Their 12 years of working on it failed to transition them to paid staff.

    Perhaps “letting go” volunteers doesn’t open them up for lawsuits if they did the same action towards their staff?

    But this smells of a legal advisor suggesting they cut their liabilities.

    Another concern is that these volunteers, have spent a lot of personal time at their own expense to train, to educate and to show up as a gift to this organization and they basically were trashed as what looks like a knee jerk decision.

    The board could have easily reversed this or rethought their situation or not approved it in the first place. This is a major change in their operation …. but no.

    Mr. Levy seems to be in the old boys network. His words are empty and callous.
    I’d also point out the not so veiled gender bias this Trustee Chair has thrown out.

    Women, white or otherwise aren’t worth keeping.
    Interesting there were no men interviewed? Or perhaps they never recruited males? It would be interesting to know.

    Opens up another deep discussion on the place of women (all women) in these things and how they are valued. Interesting the media didn’t pick it up till now? Wasn’t interesting enough of a news lead?

    The museum staff should have made the effort to create equitable opportunities. Not punish who showed up.

    As you mentioned, if they’ve been working on it for 12 years, this is the solution?

    Thanks

  14. The way the firing was done was reprehensible. If they were replaced by graduate students in Art History and/or teaching assistants getting some compensation for their work, it would be less of a shock. Now, this is about race, gender, age. Ho hum. What else is new? Joan Messenger, Professor Art History retired.

  15. Museums are educational. Of course, they serve other functions, but the craven actions taken in my former hometown by those responsible for sharing priceless works of art with the public follow the lead of national educators.
    No surprise that those responsible for educating so many, could be bullied and cowed by so few. Don’t we see and hear that daily as the inner workings of education unions and institutions of higher (?) learning sink to new lows.
    Lets try to predict what happens next in the rarified confines on Michigan Avenue guarded now by the cowardly lions.
    Will the substance of the docent lectures now point out how overtly racist the dead white guys were who painted so few minorities. Those great paintings are nothing but oppressive and need to be removed from museums. Perhaps fabulous works of contemporary diverse artists can be purchased by the museum donors to reverse this heretofore unexplored area of racial oppression. Clearly these diverse artists are being screwed again as all the big money is going to Hunter Biden, who of course is, inter alia, an oppressor by birth color.

    My former now deceased mother-in-law was a docent and her education, experience and desire to educate those who had fewer skills that she had was inspiring. Who knew that it was just another form of oppression?

  16. The Art Institute has unknowingly now clarified for the misinformed what ‘equity’ really means. Equal results without equal effort nor equal knowledge. Can’t wait for the new, but void of subject matter knowledge docents, explanations of the remarkable works at the museum. And I hope they waste no time in bringing in the new, as there is no doubt in my mind, the collections will start being sold to maintain the Institution. I assume those same ‘older white woman’ and their friends will find other charities to support.

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