If you’ve read this site, you’ll know that the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) recently got rid of 80-odd volunteer docents, peremptorily firing them via email despite the fact that most of them had worked (for free) for many years and knew tons about the art. They were good guides and cost the AIC nothing.
The reason was clear: the docents were mostly older white women of means, who had the time for the rigorous training and heavy schedule of giving tours. But because the docents didn’t “look like” the population of Chicago (i.e., there were few African-Americans or Hispanics among them), they had to go—en masse. They’re being replaced by a much smaller and less well-trained staff of paid volunteers, with promises that someday real volunteers will return. In the meantime, the newly-fired docents have been told they can apply for the paid jobs, but given that these jobs are meant to increase racial diversity, they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Their consolation prize is a three-year free membership to the AIC. Big whoop!
I’m all in favor of diversity, but firing a well-trained group of ardent volunteer guides and art-lovers is not the way the AIC should have gone about it. I won’t go into the alternatives, but the readers here suggested many.
In the meantime, I heard from one reader who is a member of the AIC and wrote to them in protest. This reader got a mealy-mouthed generic response that had a list of frequently-asked questions about DocentGate and their answers. I’ll show two. The two documents I mention here, by the way, are available via judicious inquiry.
From the FAQ:
Why is this decision being portrayed in the media as being about socioeconomics and race?
Unfortunately some have tried to portray this positive evolution of a hybrid educator program into a discussion of identity politics, which it is not. We are simply updating an education model to best serve Chicagoland students. During this time when tours have decreased due to the pandemic, we will use paid educators, and as demand for school tours increases with recovery from the pandemic, we will bring in additional paid educators and institute a new hybrid model that incorporates volunteers with updated training.
Note the weaselly first sentence which says it is “not” a discussion of identity politics. But, as I’ll show you in a minute, that’s an arrant lie, for a letter from James Rondeau to AIC members shows it’s all about identity politics. As I said, increasing diversity among guides is a laudable goal. But why does the AIC lie about it here?
One more lying answer:
Why was the program unsustainable?
The docents went through rigorous training, and the demands of the program were unsustainable in numerous ways. In nearly all recent news articles, the docents themselves acknowledge how difficult the work was to manage—a topic that the docents and museum had long been discussing. Many talented and qualified candidates could not participate because of the time the training required and when the training was offered.
Part of the reason we are taking this time to step back and evaluate is to make it easier for all volunteers—current and potential—to engage and contribute in the future. We‘re committed to creating a new program that does not have so many barriers to entry. We value the docents’ knowledge and experience and look forward to the insights they will bring to the advisory council that will be consulting on the direction of the new hybrid model.
I doubt that the docents would agree with this. After all, the program had done on for 60 years, and even though docents may have kvetched (I’m not aware of any beefs), nobody quit. They canned the program not because there were barriers to entry involving too much training, but because there were not enough docents who were people of color. Why can’t the AIC just admit that this is all about increasing diversity among the docents? They only look worse when they dissimulate and lie about it.
Now about those lies; here are some excerpts to a letter to all AIC members by the President and Director James Rondeau (also available on request). Do you think race isn’t involved? In fact, it’s EVERYTHING. I’ve bolded a paragraph that shows this.
One year after stating our commitment to racial justice and equity, I feel it is critical to do several things, the first of which is to reaffirm this commitment.
Last year, we pledged to renew our ongoing assessment of our organization and its culture, internally and publicly, and prioritize efforts to ensure visitors and staff are welcomed; foster employee engagement and trust; elevate artists and histories that have been marginalized; develop programming that is diverse, challenging, and impactful; continue to evolve educational programming to reflect current social discourse and inspire students from wide-ranging backgrounds; cultivate a visitorship that more accurately reflects the demographics of our city; and honor and embrace our civic role.
This one-year marker offers an opportunity to reflect on the steps we have taken toward addressing these inequities, to acknowledge where progress has been more difficult and slower than desired, and also to look ahead.
We acknowledge that this work—dismantling decades of marginalizing, exclusionary practices and their impact on the present—is continual and ongoing, and we recognize that an anti-racist philosophy must be ingrained into every aspect of our work—every day, in every encounter, in every decision. These ideas are reflected in a new identity, vision, and strategy document. This guiding plan—developed, reviewed, and iterated with colleagues throughout the museum—provides a revised mission as well as new values and equity statements. Moreover, it incorporates equity and inclusion principles into every one of our goals—from increasing the accessibility of our content and ensuring our spaces are welcoming to all to fostering organizational health and honoring our civic role.
. . . Throughout the last year, we have put an enormous focus on staff and internal culture—because to be the museum we want to be for our visitors, we need to create and support a more inclusive environment for our staff. As part of a substantial reorganization, we created a crucial new division of People and Culture, including the department of Inclusion and Belonging, a new team that is integral to both advancing our equity efforts and fostering a supportive anti-racist employee culture. While this team’s work is just beginning, their first priority has been to create opportunities for community and support for employees, especially during moments of institutional, local, and national trauma. Next, they will focus on building actionable working plans to measure progress around hiring and promoting more inclusively, establishing leadership development programs specifically for BIPOC colleagues.
Not about race my tuchas! I’ll send this letter to anyone who asks.
The AIC has apparently already established an “affinity space” (a segregated space) for black staffers, and plans on “launching an Asian/Asian American and Pacific Islander affinity space to offer supportive space for A/AAPI colleagues.”
Finally, two statements in Rondeau’s letter support the hypothesis (see yesterday’s post) that part of the reason for having diversity among the guides is to start interpreting art through an ideologically compatible lens as a way of “disrupting Western culture”. This, of course, is my cynical interpretation of these statements from President Rondeau (emphasis is mine):
We have also focused our attention on our collection—strengthening the representation of works by BIPOC artists in our holdings through important acquisitions and presenting a more diverse representation of artists in our galleries—especially Black artists with connections to Chicago. This work comes to life in a variety of spaces, but particularly in our contemporary galleries. Moving forward, we are evaluating how these works are presented to our audiences with a more critical lens and have instituted a process to reassess label text to provide more diverse perspectives in the galleries. . .
. . . When we are able to host students on-site again, we are relaunching our in-person school tours with a wholly different program—one developed in collaboration with teachers, artists, volunteers, and school administrators—to prioritize equity and inclusion. This evolving program, virtual and in person, transforms not only the content of our tours but the approach to be one of connection and exchange that uses art as a catalyst for the holistic engagement of students with themselves, each other, and the world around them.
In other words, art appreciation is going to become an ideological tool. Or so I think. But even if I’m wrong here, I don’t understand why the Art Institute had to lie about its motives, and do it so transparently that anyone with two neurons to rub together could see what’s really happening.