Art Institute of Chicago volunteers lose their positions to promote equity and diversity

If you have some free time in Chicago, you might be tempted to spend part of it at the Art Institute of Chicago. That’s what Ferris, Cameron and Sloane did on their day off back in 1986. More recently the museum has been voted the best museum in the world by Trip Advisor. Whatever they have been doing there seems to be working.

The museum’s docents, who give tours to visitors and school children, are all volunteers. But just to be clear, becoming a docent at one of best museums in the world is not something you just decide to do one day and then start the following Monday. Docents at the Art Institute undergo 18 months of twice-a-week training, plus years of writing and research on the museum’s collection. The average docent has been at the museum for 15 years. And again, all of this work and study is done on their own time and their own dime.

Last month the Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement, Veronica Stein, announced that the volunteer docent program, which has been in place since 1961, was ending. The museum plans to replace the 82 active docents plus 40 school greeters with just six paid positions. And then volunteers will be added in again two years from now. Here’s the key section of the letter she sent them announcing the decision.

Over the last year, we have had the opportunity to evaluate our volunteer educator program. As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program 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. Rather than refresh our current program, systems, and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up. This means the program’s current iteration will come to an end…

We have developed a three-year plan during which we will design, develop, and implement a new, sustainable program that is more closely aligned with our redefined mission, values, and identity. The museum aims to build a responsive, sustainable, and inclusive program that integrates the goals outlined in our strategic plan: to honor and embrace our civic role by investing in Chicago-area learners, educators, and creatives and to reinvigorate in-gallery learning programs to promote accessibility, equitable teaching approaches, and greater inclusion of visitors’ cultures.

The wording is a bit woke and a bit weaselly, but you probably get the general idea. The current crop of docents turns out to be mostly retired white women with enough money to volunteer for a position that takes years to master and yet pays them nothing. That’s no longer considered diverse enough. The docents sent a response letter of their own outlining all the effort they’d put in at the museum. Here’s why they believe they are being canned after years of service. [emphasis added]

Despite our training, experience, and passion for working with both students and adults, on Friday, September 3, 2021, Veronica Stein announced the end of our 60year-old docent program. Ms. Stein said that the 82 volunteer docents would be replaced by six part-time employees, and that in 2023, “unpaid volunteer educators will be reintroduced.” She also stated that the rebuilt volunteer educator program will be based on “an income equity-focused lens.”

We believe we were dismissed (1) because the museum’s perspective is that the current docent corps’ demographics do not meet the need of the strategic plan (2) the museum concluded that reengineering the docent program was a step towards achieving the museum’s important goal of creating a culture of diversity and inclusion. We do not believe that bringing the 60-year-old docent program to such an abrupt end was necessary, as we see other paths forward.

Again, you have to read between the lines a little but the bottom line here is that the museum felt having a bunch of wealthy white women as docents was a bad look. And of course the docents themselves say they are progressives who embrace diversity and equity as a worthy goal. But now that it has taken away their volunteering opportunities, they’d like to meet with the museum to discuss some alternatives. The Chicago Tribune published an editorial two weeks ago titled “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents.”

Once you cut through the blather, the letter basically said the museum had looked critically at its corps of docents, a group dominated by mostly (but not entirely) white, retired women with some time to spare, and found them wanting as a demographic…

Frankly, the museum would certainly have had a tough lawsuit on its hands for age and race discrimination (there were laws against that, last time we checked) were it not for one thing: Everyone being nixed was a volunteer. And, as at least one docent found out after contacting the AARP, volunteers are not covered by federal employment laws. We’ll wager museum lawyers had pointed that out.

Volunteers are out of fashion in progressive circles, where they tend to be dismissed as rich white people with time on their hands, outmoded ways of thinking and walking impediments to equity and inclusion. Meaningful change, it is often said, now demands they be replaced with paid employees. In this case, the clear implication is that such employees will be more amenable to how some of the lefty cultural apparatchiks at this great museum now insist their works be described.

The Chair of the Board of Trustees responded to that editorial in an op-ed which tap-danced around the issue.

The Tribune’s egregiously anti-civic stance, and the decision of many in our community to view this as an indictment of their own identity, is misaligned and disregards the driving force behind the program: to better serve Chicago-area students and visitors and foster lifelong relationships with art…

To guide the path forward, an advisory council will inform how volunteer educators may contribute to the programmatic design process. The plan outlined by Woman’s Board executive director Veronica Stein leads, over the course of three years, to a hybrid educator model that will include paid educators and relaunch the volunteer educator program with updated training, assessment and evaluation protocols.

You can read the whole thing for yourself. It’s a lot of vague blather that serves to obscure rather than elucidate the reasons for this change. But it’s clear enough that those reasons have something to do with creating more equity by forcing a change in the demographics of the docents.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this goes. My guess is that tossing out the mostly white, mostly women volunteers who know the collections is really about ensuring woke perspectives on everything are being transmitted to the public. I guess we’ll see if the public deems this experiment a success.

And because I mentioned it earlier, here’s Ferris, Cameron and Sloane on their day off.