The quest for diversity took the inevitable step in the city of Chicago — where Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first black lesbian mayor, boldly declares on a whim that she’ll not sit with white journalists and pays no consequences whatsoever for her discriminatory actions — as seen in a move by the Art Institute of Chicago.
In an attempt to diversify its team, the museum “fired all its volunteer greeters and guides because most were white women with above average means,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
Gigi Vaffis, president of the docent council, commented on the firings during an interview with radio station WBEZ.
“We were surprised, we were disappointed,” Vaffis said. “There is an army of very highly skilled docents that are willing and ready and able to continue with arts education.”
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 Journal reported, adding that the museum “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.”
According to the WSJ, Stein said that the museum needed to take a new path “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 fact that most of the docent staff was composed of older white, financially well-off women presented a roadblock to that path and reportedly resulted in the terminations.
Docent Dietrich Klevorn, who has nearly a decade of experience, was the only docent to speak on the record, after the museum reportedly requested that they not speak to the media.
“It was nearly a full-time job,” Klevorn told the 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 added.
The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board was critical of the museum’s decision, calling Stein’s termination letter “weaselly.”
“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 board said.
“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 newspaper said. “And, above all, 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?
But all is not lost. The fired docents were offered a two-year free pass to the Art Institute of Chicago as gratitude for their previous service.
Here’s a quick sampling of responses to the story from Twitter:
Guess whose husbands won’t be donating this year.
— Path Less Taken (@pathlesstaken4) October 17, 2021
Do they understand that the poor don’t have the luxury of volunteering when they work all day.
— mggi (@mggidev) October 17, 2021
this reminds me of the Boston Pride board having to dissolve because they were not diverse enough as measured by the BLM leaders in the area…I wonder how many of these docents have BLM signs in their front yard.
— Leslie Gahagan (@GahaganLeslie) October 17, 2021
Who do they think they are going to get to replace them? The reason they were mostly above average means is because that have them the free time to volunteer! Low income are typically not free time rich.
— Paul Cassidy (@pscassidy) October 17, 2021
They did the same thing at a similar institution in Cleveland over a year ago. Such a waste of knowledgeable people who love the job, do it well, and at no cost to the museums.
— Mel, You Know What To Do (@aoberlin67) October 17, 2021
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