At long last, the NYT covers the Art Institute of Chicago’s DocentGate

October 22, 2021 • 12:00 pm

That’s right, folks, you can hear all the cultural/ideological news here well before the New York Times gets off its tuchas and decides, well, the uproar over firing and cancellation has reached a point where they’d look overly biased if they failed to cover it. And so, in today’s paper, you finally get to read about the unconscionable firing of 82 active, unpaid, volunteer, highly-trained docents by the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC)—13 days after I called it to your attention. (See also here.)

Why were they let go? Because they weren’t sufficiently “diverse,” being mainly, but not exclusively, older white women of means. They had undergone months of training, had to write papers, and did an enormous amount of work—all for the love of art. But the lack of equity did them in. All that expertise, lost. . .   And you know what? The “consolation prize” the AIC gave the ditched docents was a two-year free membership to the AIC. Nearly all of them had worked at the AIC far longer than that.

They were fired by email, and not even by the head of the Art Institute but by Veronica Stein, the executive director of learning and public engagement for the museum’s Women’s Board. They will be replaced by a smaller, less-well-trained group of paid docents ($25 per hour) who will of course be more “diverse”, and that means racially. If the AIC wanted to diversify its docents, which is an admirable endeavor, there are far better and less divisive and injurious ways to do it, as my readers pointed out in the comments. This reprehensible act by the AIC got a lot of people’s dander up, as you can see from the 183 comments on my original post, as well as in the Chicago Tribune‘s and Wall Street Journal’s scathing editorials about the dastardly act.

Now, well after the news cycle has expired, the New York Times decided to report it. Click the screenshot to read:

Now there’s nothing wrong with diversity in volunteers, though if you can’t get it (the AIC said it tried and failed), you just don’t go firing those people who have the means to volunteer because they’re white and female. There are better ways. Nevertheless, the NYT article (which doesn’t say more than you’ve read here) says that the AIC director and Stein were both blindsided by the public reaction. What kind of bubble are they living in?

Look at this dissimulation by the AID director, “focused only on his mission”:

James Rondeau, the Institute’s director, said in an interview that the docents program had long been viewed as logistically unsustainable, and that the Institute had stopped adding new volunteers 12 years ago. He said that the recent vitriol had taken a severe toll on the institution and its staff.

“Clearly we were not prepared for this to become a discussion of identity politics,” he said. “We are only focused on our mission.”

If they were discussing canning the docents for 12 years, why didn’t they tell the docents in advance? They heard about this only when they got their emailed “pink slip.”

From Stein:

Ms. Stein in an interview said she had been taken aback by the sharply negative reactions. “The violent, weaponizing language an overwhelming number of people are using in letters and emails to describe the museum’s evolution has been startling, and if I’m being honest, scary,” she said. “As a result, the museum now has increased security. Our frontline staff have already experienced erratic and harmful behavior. Our goal now is getting the facts out and keeping our staff safe.”

Again, this woman is clueless, but note how she raises the trope of the “unsafe staff” and the critical emails and letters as a way to deflect criticism of the AIC. When you do something wrong, try to paint yourself and your institution as victims, and if you can work in the word “safe” or “unsafe,” so much the better. Stein has learned the victimhood role well (note also “scary”).

Stein, who has a degree from the University of Mendacity, adds this:

Ms. Stein said that the museum was simply trying to rebuild the program, and complained that the museum’s motivations and plans had been mischaracterized. “We can lose focus on the amazing opportunity we have to pay educators,” she said, “especially when we live in a society where that is not the standard.”


The NYT notes that museums around the country are assessing their volunteer programs with an eye towards diversity, and that’s fine. Let a million kinds of docent bloom! But you don’t go about the revision by creating more racial division, much less throwing a group of dedicated people overboard simply because of their race and/or gender.

The AIC blew this one big time. It’s kind of heartbreaking to hear the polite but saddened response of the docents themselves.

. . . . Gigi Vaffis, the docent council president, said she and her colleagues “were surprised, disappointed and dismayed” by Ms. Stein’s letter.

“Regardless of our age, regardless of our gender, regardless of our income level, we know the Art Institute’s collection extremely well and are highly trained to facilitate arts engagement across diverse audiences,” said Ms. Vaffis, who has worked as a volunteer for about 20 years. “Our goal is to facilitate tour conversations that are as dynamic as the audiences we serve.

“We have such value, knowledge, experience and passion — I wish the museum had recognized what we bring to the table,” she continued. “I wish they would reconsider and bring us back.”

Now that is class!  I hope the AIC does the right thing and reinstates the docents, and then they can pay them while replacing the ones who leave with a more diverse group. But that won’t happen. I hope the AIC pays for its stupidity with a big loss of donations. (I like art, but I hate mendacity.)

One good thing, however, is that this, like the Dorian Abbot affair, is at last being covered by the NYT, so they’re finally paying some attention to the backlash against extreme wokeness.

30 thoughts on “At long last, the NYT covers the Art Institute of Chicago’s DocentGate

  1. Yes, better late than never I suppose. And yes, they should reinstate the docents.

    Here in the UK, the results of an 18-month investigation into the ties between the BBC and a lobbying group, Stonewall, with a particular and contested view of trans rights and gender identity has just been released. No coverage yet in The Grauniad, naturally. Over ten episodes, neither the BBC or Stonewall could provide anyone to defend their views on air – or to provide answers to specific questions put to them.

    1. Oops, I should have mentioned that the investigation and podcasts were by … a BBC investigative team and made available through the BBC website, and yet they still refused Freedom of Information requests or to put up a spokesman. Truly bizarre.

  2. Anyone interested in the curious question of why diversity (of superficial and immutable characteristics) has become so insanely important as to have generated a D.E.I. racket worth many billions per annum might consider reading Peter Wood’s Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. Although it was published nearly two decades ago, the message of this excellent book (anti-woke years before the existence of this pernicious concept, which is now engulfing the entire culture and the body politic) is more important now than ever before.

  3. Dr. Coyne may have covered this, if so, I missed it…but it’s worth revisiting. Bari Weiss was on CNN talking to Brian Stelter, and it’s stunning how she answers Brian Stelter’s question about “world gone mad” (i.e., wokeness in action).

    In terms of the Art Institute, which I use to visit on day trips to Chicago back in the 80s and 90s, it’s astounding how firing the docents was essentially used by Institute upper Management and Board Chair as a kind of intersectional CYA.

    But here’s Bari and the “world gone mad” part is right at the start:

  4. I had my docent shift this last Sunday and this was a hot topic amongst those of us there. I maintain that they could have done something really neat by pairing a young person (in high school, or even community college or from the universities in town) with a mentor, providing some kind of college credit and this way bring more art lovers into the fold. They should lean on the expertise of the docents, not discard it.

  5. The Art Institute’s reply is typical these days. They didn’t expect criticism, and it makes them feel unsafe. How out of touch are they? That’s why every one of these stories is important; to make sure that bureaucrats understand that their ham-handed policies will not be met with cheers or even approval.

    1. Of course, it doesn’t ACTUALLY make them feel “unsafe”, not by any sensible definition of the word. When someone says, “if I’m being honest [it’s] scary,” they are NOT being honest the vast majority of the time. I’ve seen “scary”. Letters and emails are almost never that.

      1. I am not sure. There are plenty racist trolls out there would definitely send out letters since this sort of thing really pushes their buttons. These would not be your art museum type. More of like the Proud Boys type.

        This brings up a thing that is unfortunate, which is that when we decry the firing of docents for being white, or when we defend Tracy Morgan for his recent experiment in comedy, we wind up commentating in same direction as the screaming racist anti-trans MAGA hat wearing thugs.

        1. How long before elderly white women are called ‘harmful’ for merely existing? You can see it coming.
          One of the saddest lessons of the pandemic for me has been the frequency of naked callousness towards the elderly and vulnerable. How often have you read an anti-lockdown comment about how the virus ‘only kills the old’? None of this is decent. Social Injustice Warriors.

  6. In defense of Ms. Stein, she did qualify her statement with “if I’m being honest”. I think it is clear that she wasn’t. 😉

    By the way, the comments to the NYT article are interesting. Many support the mass firing of the docents, one characterizing them as clueless wives of rich men who can’t possibly be in touch with the community. We live in a strangely incoherent world.

    1. Paul, in the NYT comment section of the article in question, you can click on Reader Picks (in the top left corner of the comments section): This will sort comments in order of “Recommended [by other readers]”. The result: the most popular/most recommended comments are critical of the Art Institute’s handling of the issue. It’s my impression that NYT readers are not nearly as woke as many of the young employees of the Times.
      Sometimes a comment section of a Times article also has, besides “Reader Picks”, “New York Times Picks”, and then one may see clear differences between comments most liked by readers and comments most liked by the NYT staffer(s) who select(s) “New York Times Picks”.

  7. When you shoot yourself in the foot it’s not a good idea to shoot the other, it makes a cripple looking like a dork.
    All those sucking noises is very unbecoming.
    The handling of the docents has been incompetent and shameful. An ideology driven waste of a functioning competent group, loyal to the arts.
    What more do these people need (AIC) to be convinced.

  8. The double-speak is maddening and scary (because it will likely work). The reason Stein and Rondeau likely waited so long to share their “shock” at the “backlash” is so they could tell their little lie (“this wasn’t about race EVEN THOUGH WE EXPLICITLY SAID IT WAS”) and hope that after 13 days, everyone would have forgotten it. So, they lay out the wokespeak of how “scary” and “unsafe” the blowback has been so they can try to smear anyone giving blowback as a racist reactionary.

    You’ll see this more and more often as more and more organizations make racial decisions like this. And sadly, it works. This was Stein’s ‘get out of jail free card’ – she didn’t need to defend her position, she didn’t need to address the criticism, she didn’t even need to tell the truth about what she said a mere 13 days earlier. Nope…. all she had to do was say that the critics made her “unsafe” and “scared”. Must be nice to have what is likely a high salary in the $100K-$200K range and not even be able to handle criticism for your decisions, that your professional ego worth a six-figure salary is so fragile that you feel “unsafe”. Where do I sign up?

      1. The whole affair stinks. At the time I raised the issue with a former professor there who is a good scholar (if somewhat obsessed with Queer Theory) and who I naively thought might be sympathetic to the plight of the docents. No such luck. He was in denial of anything happening. When I confronted him with the facts and said it was a blatant instance of anti-white racism he said that’s an oxymoron. Unfortunately he showed himself to be one such, minus the ‘oxy’.

  9. “The violent, weaponizing language . . . .”

    Like what – language pointing out your discussing for 12 years discarding the docents but not telling them until two weeks ago? That it was your last-minute action that was “weaponizing”?

  10. While the pure “equity” version of the story is, sadly, entirely plausible to me, there’s also a unionization angle which I don’t think has received much press. I have read, but don’t have a good source to hand, that there was a push to move more work from the volunteers to paid staff, which of course increases their union’s power and income.

    Have others read this, and perhaps know of a better source? It is possible I have been mislead — I read this on one of the earlier iterations of the story but was not paying very close attention.

  11. Shame on the Times for reporting on this ageist,racist,sexist outrage in Chicago when they seem to have completely ignored the exact same thing happening at the Brooklyn museum a year or so ago.

  12. >I hope the AIC pays for its stupidity with a big loss of donations.
    This is a good response. Here in Canada I have stopped donating to charities/cultural organizations who do indigenous land acknowledgements or who have kept the Canadian flag at half-staff since June — yes really they have. The beauty is that when I tell them why, they instantly take me off their databases as some kind of hate criminal and I will likely never be bothered by them again.
    For now I am making an exception for my beloved Toronto Symphony Orchestra, struggling back to live concerts next month They don’t have a flagstaff and their land acknowledgement is less obsequiously self-hating than many. But, TSO if you’re listening, consider yourself on notice.

  13. The thing that surprises me is why the docents haven’t taken a leaf out of woke demonstrators and picketed the AIC. I would be with them all the way if they did. I suppose it’s because they are simply too decent and civilised to have contemplated such action. I am disgusted at how they have been treated, a kick in the teeth if there ever was one. Something I’d like to know – has there been a single proven episode of racism on their part in the last 10 years? Any accusations, even?
    Mark (retired curator, New Zealand)

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