The lies of the Art Institute of Chicago

October 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

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.

35 thoughts on “The lies of the Art Institute of Chicago

  1. “an Asian/Asian American and Pacific Islander affinity space to offer supportive space for A/AAPI colleagues”

    What the heck does someone from Afghanistan, someone from Beijing, a 10th-generation person of Chinese heritage from San Francisco, someone from Vanuatu, and a third-generation person of Indian heritage have in common?

    The idea is rather ridiculous. It assumes: They have oppression by whites in common.

    1. Clearly, five (or more) different “affinity spaces” along the lines you specify are desperately needed, along with somewhere between one and six LGBTQX affinity sub-spaces. At the University of Wash,, four different “affinity caucuses” have already been set up to cope with this grave problem.

      1. What we need is an affinity space for each individual, ultimately, since the smallest minority is one. Or maybe a right-brain affinity space and a left-brain affinity space, with some extra for the amygdala and the pons…and the GI tract effectively has its own nervous system, that needs an affinity space…

    2. It’s worse than ridiculous. It’s pernicious. Are we going towards segregation now? This makes me want to throw up.

  2. It is indeed problematic that, although the vast majority (not all by any means) of the magnificent works of art at the AIC (and NYC’s Metropolitan and every other such repository of aesthetic wonders in the West) were created by people of pallor, such art does not adequately reflect the ethnic composition of today’s America. Perhaps it is not only docents who need to be purged.

    1. And don’t just purge the art. A brief search for information about the AIC’s management was unsuccessful, but I did notice that James Rondeau was rather pallid. Perhaps he could lead anti-racism by example and resign with the stipulation that only people of colour need apply for his job.

  3. The “explanations” are pathetic. Lies don’t change facts. Unfortunately, their repetition may mask them sufficiently that truth becomes forever obscured. Such is the sad state of today’s political and social climate.

  4. People of pallor, I like that term. Ty j e. A possible positive aspect of the AIC’s new mission statements: when the museum sells the art that was created by people of pallor in order to pay for art created by people without pallor, other museums and collectors will benefit and folks outside of Chicago may have access to some of the AIC’s underappreciated masterpieces. Could be a win for everyone, possibly except folks in Chicago who will need to become tourists to see art once housed in their city.

    1. What make you think they will be selling the art that was created by people of pallor? Surely it will be ground into dust as a lesson to us all!

  5. So let’s say a guide under the new program is showing a Mondrian painting. How would it go?

    “What does that oversized and overbearing red square suggest to you? Are all squares equal? The squares’ different sizes and placement in the composition—some above, some below, some clearly at the margins—can be seen as a reflection of society’s endemic inequity and oppression.”

    “How do you think that little yellow square feels?”

    “The squares are demarcated by thick lines, lines that might be naively interpreted as suggesting that all the squares are separate but equal, but a more perceptive interpretation reveals that those lines represent division and injustice. The lines represent evil. And they’re painted black. The color black in Western cultures has traditionally been equated with all that’s bad, and here we see an example of this. How does that make you feel? What was Mondrian trying to tell us? Should he be canceled?”

  6. 80-odd docents… You’d think they could ante up lifetime memberships for crying out loud. Three years is insultingly cheap, especially for long-term docents.

    I don’t think the events here are quite as pernicious as they are made out to be (although the dissimulation is unbecoming). This is how I think it played out:
    – The AIC wanted their docents to be more representative of Chicago’s population.
    – The volunteer program, by its very nature, tends to select for affluent people with lots of free time, leading to a staff that was not representative. They felt they needed to go to a paid docent program to attract candidates from other demographics.
    – They couldn’t afford to pay the existing docents on top of all the new docents they’d need to hire.
    – Rather than trying to selectively fire the existing docents (no doubt this would be a fraught process) they decided to let them all go.

    I think they made some serious mis-steps (no doubt they thought that because nobody was losing their livelihood the uproar would be minimal), but I’m not sure I would have done it much differently, though I’d hope that I’d be more sensitive to the docents, giving them lots of notice and being more transparent with them.

    There are two avenues that I see AIC being attacked here:
    1) the process (firing en masse with no notice)
    2) the purpose (have your museum staff more representative of the community)

    I think it’s fair game to criticize the process (as PCC does), but much of the criticism I see is about the purpose.

  7. Perhaps the issue is that the Art Institute couldn’t get the existing docents to discard their hard-won knowledge of Art History and parrot the mealy-mouthed racialist language that it wants? Certainly, the one-size fits all mantra of racialism will be easier to train than actually educating docents was. I can see a market for bootleg recorded tours.

  8. “…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.”

    This is what totalitarianism looks like. At least authoritarians are happy enough if you just stay in line and keep to yourself, but totalitarians demand that your every thought, every word, and every action is dominated by their ideology. Truly frightening stuff.

    1. I second your pulling this quote out. It really states explicitly how the DEI devotees proceed: Like litmus paper testing for pH, there is a conceptual test that these devotees use to test for anti-racism a la Kendi. This anti-racism test is pass-fail and unforgiving. If someone doesn’t pass, they are shunned, disgraced, cancelled, or fired, condemned as persona non grata per omnia saecula saeculorum.
      I also second your use of the term totalitarian to describe this retrograde movement in our civil rights history.

  9. The Art Institute is lying through it’s teeth. I’ve never heard so much bs! If anyone should be fired it would have to be at the top of the organization.

  10. “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.” – maybe the explanation is that the leadership of the AIC “lacks two neurons to rub together”?

    1. The explanation is that they don’t want people talking about the fact that they fired an entire corps of dedicated, long-serving volunteers who have donated hundreds or even thousands of hours of their time, all because those volunteers were white.They really, really don’t want people talking about that, which is exactly why they say nothing about their plainly stated goals — diversity, personal experience, etc — when actually asked about it.

      1. The lack of two neurons to rub together is exemplified by the transparent phoniness of the AIC’s official pronouncements on this matter. The officials who thought these weasel-words would fool anyone are the same airheads who thought nobody would question their cavalier firing of all the insufficiently “diverse” docents. Perhaps the chief airhead, who pulls down close to a million clams a year, was nervous that the Diversity Consultancy would point out his obvious pallor—and hurried to fire the docents before the Consultant could recommend his departure.

  11. To fund the new docent program they could impose a “supremacist guilt” tax on all white
    people entering the museum.

  12. I want to take a trip next year to Chicago and see the Art Institute. Wonder if there’s a way to contact the old docents? I’d be happy to pay one of the former docent to accompany me to talk about the art.

    1. In the comments section of the Art Institute’s facebook (or meta) page, there is at least one (former) docent who has written that s/he eagerly will do this for anyone who wants it, freely, and urges one to message him/her.

  13. Given this is Chicago, I wonder if this will be used to curry favor with local politicians by hiring people they sent the AIC’s way.

  14. What I find depressing about this whole situation is how easily it could’ve been handled reasonably. “It’s come to our attention that our docents are predominantly a single race, gender, age, and class. We really want to encourage greater diversity, both to provide different perspectives on the art and to show visitors of all ages, races, etc. that tehy are welcome, that they too can be part of our museum community if they choose. It is always good to show folks that people like them can aspire to be the people they look up to. So, going forward, as our docents retire or choose to move on, we’ll be revamping the program for new volunteers/hires to encourage greater diversity…”

    There’s really nothing wrong (IMO) with seeking greater diversity in their docent workforce. What they’re doing wrong is (a) firing good people to do it, and (b) lying about their motives.

    1. An entirely good thing to do would have been to have docents act as mentors to new trainees. Thats a good idea in any case.

      How did that idea did not occur to anyone?

      1. I should imagine that they didn’t want non- anti-racist ideas passed on. Must keep ideological purity you know.

  15. The AIC has apparently already established an “affinity space” (a segregated space) for black staffers

    There used to be a cliché over here about how Americans don’t understand irony. This sentence demonstrates beautifully that it is a lie.

  16. I rarely post, but I really want to thank Prof. Coyne for his blog (if I may call it that).
    Thank you for the time and effort you put into this. It’s a beacon of sensibility and analytical rigor in a sea of crap.

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