Art Institute of Chicago ends a docent program, and sets off a backlash

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Art Institute of Chicago ends a docent program, and sets off a backlash
A docent guides a group at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum’s decision to dismiss its volunteer educators and create a program that “responds to issues of class and income equity” has drawn criticism. Art Institute of Chicago via The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- Like many museums around the country, the Art Institute of Chicago has been trying to forge closer ties with the racially and economically diverse city it serves. Museum officials decided that one area in need of an overhaul was its 60-year-old program of volunteer educators, known as docents, who greet school groups and lead tours.

So last month the board overseeing the program sent a letter to the museum’s 82 active docents — most of whom were white, older women — informing the volunteers that their program was being ended. The letter said that the museum would phase in a new model relying on paid educators and volunteers “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 to participate.”

The move has erupted into the latest cultural flashpoint as museums around the country wrestle with making their staffs, boards and programming more diverse.

The docents — longtime, dedicated volunteers who know the Institute and its collections intimately — lamented the decision. The Chicago Tribune denounced the move in an editorial headlined “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents.” Conservative media decried the plan as discrimination against white people and an example of what The Federalist called “the cult of wokeness.” Infowars, a site founded by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, ran an article about it.

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.”

In the Sept. 3 letter ending the program, Veronica Stein, executive director of learning and public engagement for the museum’s Woman’s Board, which supports education activities, said that the museum wanted to “rebuild our program from the ground up.”

The new plan calls for hiring paid educators — Stein invited the volunteers to apply for those positions — and then developing a new program over the next few years. In 2023, she wrote, “unpaid volunteer educators will be reintroduced via a redesigned model” that includes updated protocols for “recruitment, application, training and assessment.” She offered the departing docents museum memberships.

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 front-line staff have already experienced erratic and harmful behavior. Our goal now is getting the facts out and keeping our staff safe.”

A number of museums have been trying to address how to get more people of color into the hiring pipeline, in part by removing financial barriers. Organizations such as the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement encourage nonprofit and government organizations “to engage volunteers who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities they serve.” And there have been widespread calls for salary reforms, since systems that rely on unpaid volunteers and interns tend to favor those who can afford to work for little to nothing.

The question of diversifying and training docents has come up a number of times in recent years. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston publicly committed to “changing protocols and procedures for front-line staff and guards, articulating our expectations for visitor, staff and volunteer behavior, and enhancing ongoing training for all staff and volunteers” after seventh-graders and a teacher said they had been subjected to racist remarks by staff and other visitors during a 2019 field trip. And a 2020 article in Slate headlined “Museums Have a Docent Problem” described what it called “the struggle to train a mostly white, unpaid tour guide corps to talk about race.”

The docents at institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston are all volunteers. “For many years we have worked concertedly to attract a diverse corps of docents,” said Gary Tinterow, the Houston museum’s director, “and we look forward to continued diversification of staff and volunteers.”

At the Met, 400 of the museum’s 1,000 volunteers are docents, whose program “brings great value to our institution” and “will continue to evolve,” said Daniel Weiss, president and CEO. “It is incumbent on all institutions to ensure that their programs and policies are aligned with their values and responsive to current needs.”

The Art Institute of Chicago’s docents council has urged the museum to revisit its decision and consider alternatives.

“We agree that the museum, from top to bottom, must better reflect the Chicago area community that it serves,” the council wrote in a letter to Rondeau last month. “We also believe that our knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment can contribute to achieving our mutual goal — the museum’s and ours — of making the museum a more welcome place for all.”

The Chicago Tribune editorial described the dismissal of the docents as “a callous move in a cruel time in America” and called on Rondeau to “apologize and find some kind of compromise that does not involve the spectacle of long-serving devotees of a great museum left to feel like they’ve been put out with the gift-store trash.”

Robert Levy, the Art Institute’s chair, responded with a defense of the decision in the Tribune, writing that officials were taking “thoughtful and measured steps” to pursue “a new national art education model.”

He wrote that “the decision of many in our community to view this as an indictment of their own identity” was “misaligned and disregards the driving force behind the program: to better serve Chicago-area students and visitors and foster lifelong relationships with art.”

But the controversy has hardly abated. “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,” said an essay in The Wall Street Journal. “That’s not very civic-minded, is it?”

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.”

An advisory council that will guide the museum through the process will include docents, she added.

Gigi Vaffis, president of the docents council, said she and her colleagues “were surprised, disappointed and dismayed” by 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 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. I wish they would reconsider and bring us back.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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