“The fired docents were offered a two-year free pass to the museum as gratitude for their previous service.”
In their hilariously entitled “Indocency on Display at the Art Institute of Chicago,” the Wall Street Journal reported on the purge of the institute’s 100 mostly white, mostly female volunteer museum guides (archive link).
The Art Institute of Chicago crouches on Michigan Avenue, defending the surrounding Grant Park from the city’s skyscrapers crowding in. Spreading over more than a million square feet, the museum has almost 300,000 works of art. And zero docents.
In museum-speak, a docent is a trained volunteer who greets visitors and guides them through the collection, filling in details of the artists’ lives, speaking to the visual elements of the work on display and adding art-history context. The Art Institute used to have more than 100 docents, 82 of them active, until Veronica Stein, an executive director of learning and engagement, sent a Sept. 3 email canning all of them. In gratitude for their long, unpaid service—averaging 15 years each—the Art Institute offered the involuntarily retired guides a two-year free pass to the museum.
The apparent problem was that the Art Institute docents were mostly older white women of above-average financial means and with plenty of time on their hands. The institute needs to go to a more professional model, Ms. Stein explained, “in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility.”
The move strikes me as rather strange. Have they already hired all these minorities and lower income museum tour guides with detailed knowledge of art and art history? I say, “hired” because, obviously, they won’t find volunteers among the middle and lower/working classes, so they will need to pay them. If so, how much? At full- or part-time? If the latter, should they get away with avoiding paying full benefits to these new diversity, inclusion, and equity hires?
The training for these (formerly) volunteer positions sounds pretty intensive for some random person dragged off the streets of Chicago.
The fired docents were offered a two-year free pass to the museum as gratitude for their previous service.
The institute is one of America’s oldest and largest museums, with its docent program launching in 1961 as part of an initiative of the Woman’s Board and the Junior League of Chicago.
The docents sent a letter on Sept. 13 detailing the staff “engaged in eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent, five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas, and monthly and bi-weekly trainings to further educate ourselves with the materials, processes and cultural context” of the museum’s pieces.
“It was nearly a full-time job,” Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012, told the Wall Street Journal. “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together.”
“We had to be very comprehensive about everything as we talked with them, moving through the space,” she said. Klevorn was the only docent to speak on the record to WSJ, after the museum reportedly requested they not speak to the media. The institute told Fox News later Sunday that “the museum did not ask the docents not to speak to media,” but that the docent council decided to decline further comment to the press.
It sounds like there will be a shift not to a more diverse volunteer staff but to those annoying pre-recorded tours everyone ignores.
Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune reportedly lashed out at the institute for its “elitism.”
Fox News continues:
The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board even hit back at the museum’s decision, calling Stein’s termination letter to the docents as “weaselly.”
“Why not invest some time in recruiting new, diverse docents? Why not grow the corps in such a way that it’s refreshed? Why not help docents who need help with expenses or child care? Why not have a hybrid model, at least until the current docents exit?” the board wrote in its Sept. 27 opinion piece.
“Instead of trashing volunteerism as inherently elitist, why not avow and attest to its ongoing value as a vital part of necessary diversification and cultural change?”
For its part, according to Fox News, the institute is claiming that this move has been in the works for 12 years and that no one was actually fired, the docent program was simply put on hold.
. . . . Robert Levy, chairman of the Art Institute, defended the decision to fire the docents days later in his own op-ed, and said that the plan to do so had been in the works for 12 years.
The Art Institute told Fox News in comment on Sunday that they “have not fired anyone.”
“We thought we were being very clear when outlining our plan, but somehow this has been twisted into unfounded accusations of reverse racism resulting in lewd threats against our staff. We’re simply pausing a volunteer educator program and would never want to diminish the contributions they have made. This should not be the roots of a culture war,” a spokesperson for the institute said.
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