How a group of Midwest Museum docents found themselves at the center of a right-wing media storm

The docents, the kind volunteers who organize tours of the museum for school children, may not seem like a group inclined to start storms in the right-wing media. But that’s exactly what happened when the Chicago Institute of the Arts (AIC) informed its fleet of docents last month that their services were no longer needed, effective immediately.

The museum told volunteers it was making an effort to involve more demographically diverse voices at the museum. Current docents – who tended to be older white women with free time – would be replaced with paid part-time employees in hopes of attracting those for whom volunteer work was not financially feasible.

The museum “had a responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program in a way that enabled community members of all income levels to participate, address equity issues and not require financial flexibility to participate” , wrote Veronica Stein, Director of Learning. and public engagement for the museum’s women’s council, in a letter to the 82 active docents on September 3.

“Rather than refreshing our current program, systems, and processes, we believe the time has come to rebuild our program from scratch,” she said, noting that current docents would be invited to apply for them. paid positions. (Several are already interviewing for the new jobs, the museum confirmed.)

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. Photo: Educational Images / UIG via Getty Images.

What the museum did not expect was the intense backlash. Dedicated docents felt their abrupt dismissal was a slap in the face, especially given the position’s rigorous 18-month training period to qualify, reported the the Wall Street newspaper.

Conservative-leaning media presented the mass layoff as an example of diversity and inclusion efforts that had gone too far. “The left sees no injustice when privileged whites are discriminated against,” wrote the Federalist.

The Chicago Tribune’s The editorial board, meanwhile, called Stein’s letter a “weasel” and the volunteer docents “a vulnerable group in today’s progressive power structure.”

“People are upset about getting rid of docents because it changes the balance of power,” curator and activist Kelli Morgan told Artnet News. “I think this is something that has to happen in all institutions, because when you leave the status quo as it is, nothing changes.”

The museum declined to make Stein available for an interview, but said through a spokesperson that “we are disappointed that this change has resulted in harassment and threats against our staff.”

While the elimination of the docents struck many as sudden, it had actually been in the works for years. AIC stopped training new docents in 2012 and has been in talks to restructure the program since 2019.

“As we begin to recover from the pandemic, we are able to meet the current demand for tours with our existing professional staff and are in the process of hiring paid educators who will lead the tours once the demand increases.” , said an AIC spokesperson. “When we return to pre-pandemic touring levels, we will reintroduce volunteer educators again. “

AIC is not the only museum to have taken advantage of last year’s extended shutdown to implement staff changes. The Birmingham Museum of Art officially ended its volunteer docent program last June after auditing the program for diversity and inclusion reasons.

“When the museum closed in March 2020, we began a thorough reassessment of our institution, taking a close look at our resources, goals and priorities,” a spokesperson told Artnet News in an email. . “These considerations have been informed by the economic and social implications of the pandemic, as well as by the global calculation of racial injustice. “

The Birmingham Museum is currently developing a paid teaching scholarship program, “following a model established by other institutions, such as the Mississippi Museum of Art, which would enable students from various disciplines to acquire training, skills and education. experience to pursue their career. “The spokesperson said.” This program also addresses a critical need for museums to diversify future professionals. “

Unlike Chicago, there was relatively little uproar over the changes in Birmingham.

“While the museum has lost some donors among the guide body, the decision was greeted with support from other donors, ”the spokesperson said. “There were also those who did not agree with the decision, but did not withdraw the funding, as they respected the institution’s desire to make changes that ensure the museum’s continued relevance for the community it serves. “

At AIC, a redesigned volunteer model, developed with input from an advisory board of former docents, is expected to be introduced in 2023.

“The terrain is changing,” Morgan said. “If you are so dedicated and so interested, you have to re-educate yourself on the new ground. You can still use and share what you have learned so far, but this moment is forcing you to learn something new and you have to learn it in a different way.

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