The famed Art Institute of Chicago fired all of its volunteer docents in early September, and allegedly they did so because the group of predominantly white, retired women was not “diverse” and “inclusive” enough.
The Art Institute of Chicago 2021-2022 Docent Council fired back on September 13 in a letter delineating the numerous contributions the docents had made over the years. They wrote:
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.
The editorial board of The Chicago Tribune condemned the move to fire the docents on September 27, citing what they called the “weaselly letter” from Veronica Stein, the Woman’s Board executive director of learning and engagement that was sent to the museum’s roughly 150 volunteer docents. The Tribune continued, “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.”
“No matter that the docents had typically trained for years, if not decades, on how to describe the Art Institute’s collection, or worked hard on adjusting to the trendy new ways (‘Art and Activism’) of describing the work to be found there, or put in hour after hour in academic study of their fields,” the Tribune added.
“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,” the Tribune noted. “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.”
Museum appoints Veronica Stein as the new Woman's Board Executive Director, Learning and Public Engagement #museum #VeronicaStein #TheArtInstituteofChicago #art #newspaper @artinstitutechi The Art Institute of Chicago
— ArtDaily, The First Art Newspaper on the Net (@artdaily) March 22, 2021
Three days later, Robert M. Levy, the chair of the board of trustees at the Art Institute of Chicago, dodged the question as to whether “diversity” was the reason for the firings. He responded, “With the recent 15-month pause on in-person school tours due to the pandemic and the deeply reduced need for school tours for the current year, the museum is updating this 60-year-old model in order to invest in trained education professionals, alongside volunteers, to deliver on our core mission.”
He attacked the Tribune, excoriating the paper for its “egregiously anti-civic stance”:
Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune editorial contained numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of the Art Institute’s decision to rebuild our model for learning. Rather than looking at the museum as a leader in how cultural institutions around the world are evolving to meet the needs of their audiences, the Editorial Board’s take resulted in a wholehearted endorsement of the status quo. 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.