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White volunteers were fired at Chicago museum, people of color hired to do same job

The Art Institute of Chicago fired more than 150 volunteers and suspended its decades-old docent program after the famed museum hired a woke consulting firm that advised the cultural institution to ditch the ‘wealthy white’ guides and  prioritize ‘equity and diversity.’ 

Even worse, the mostly elderly docents, who are well-versed on the the exhibits at nearly 150-year-old museum on Lake Michigan, were terminated by email on Sept 3 because it wanted to ‘rebuild our program from the ground up.’ 

The museum – featured prominently in the 1986 hit film Ferris Beuller’s Day Off – hired The Equity Project, a Colorado-based consulting firm, which found the program was outdated and would often skew towards wealthy white women and had too many barriers preventing people of color from entering the program.

‘Sometimes equity requires taking bold steps and actions,’ said Equity Project executive producer Monica Williams. ‘You really have to dismantle and disrupt the systems that have been designed to hold some up and others out.’

The Art Institute of Chicago bills itself as the ‘Downtown Chicago’s #1 Museum’ 

Equity Project executive producer Monica Williams defended the museum's decision. The Equity Project consulted Art Institute of Chicago on it's new plan

Equity Project executive producer Monica Williams defended the museum’s decision. The Equity Project consulted Art Institute of Chicago on it’s new plan

The Equity Project was founded in response to Donald Trump winning 2016 Presidential Election.

‘Today, the Equity Project brings transformative work to organizations across the globe,’ the company’s bio claims. ‘Their expertise lies in creating spaces filled with grace for people to show up as they are, and developing actionable strategies to help organizations advance their equity efforts.’ 

Just last year, 186 workers – about 30 percent of museum staff – demanded ‘transparency’ and ‘racial equity’ amid layoffs.  

Art Institute Chairman Robert Levy wrote an op-ed defending the decision and said that the plan to do so had been in the works for 12 years.

‘Critical self-reflection and participatory, recuperative action is required if we are to remain relevant to the changing audiences seeking connection to art,’ he wrote.

Art Institute of Chicago Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein sent out an email on September 3 to the museum’s docents telling them the program as they knew it was ending. 

The museum told USA Today that the pause is part of a ‘multi-year transition’ to a ‘hybrid model that incorporates paid and volunteer educators.’

The Chicago Tribune slammed the move in an op-ed and suggested that they instead hire more diverse docents. 

Art Institute Chairman Robert Levy (pictured) wrote an op-ed defending the decision and said that the plan to do so had been in the works for 12 years

Art Institute Chairman Robert Levy (pictured) wrote an op-ed defending the decision and said that the plan to do so had been in the works for 12 years

Barbara Kruger's “Untitled (Questions), 1990/2021” lit up Chicago's historic riverfront projected onto the museum earlier in October

Barbara Kruger’s ‘Untitled (Questions), 1990/2021’ lit up Chicago’s historic riverfront projected onto the museum earlier in October

The display was part of a series devoted to Kruger, the renowned New Jersey-born artist

The display was part of a series devoted to Kruger, the renowned New Jersey-born artist 

‘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 board wrote. 

The president of what’s known as the institute’s ‘Docent Concil’ said that the move was a complete shock. 

‘We had no idea,’ said Gigi Vaffis, who has been a docent for almost two decades. ‘We were very surprised. I was honestly a little gobsmacked.’ 

In the weeks since, Vaffis said there have still been no indications of what the new plan from the Art Institute of Chicago will look like. 

The docents responded with a letter of protest that pointed out that the position requires twice a week training for 18 months, five years of research and writing and ongoing further training.  

Conservative media has shown outrage. Chicago columnist John Kass called the plan proof that ‘Idiocracy’ has come to America, a reference to a Mike Judge film from 2006.   

‘What the Art Institute did to its docent volunteers—not all wealthy and white—was shameful indeed. They love art. They study art,’ he wrote. 

‘And those of us who’ve been fortunate to visit the masterpieces there and listen to the docents don’t think about docent demographics. Only racists think about skin. We think of their knowledge and passion and ability to communicate.

Many museums have considered what changes they should make in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. 

The Equity Project’s Williams says that the Art Institute’s changes will open up spots for people who can’t afford to work weekdays or do unpaid work. 

If docent programs become paid positions, it will help museums move away from ‘a particular demographic of mostly white and wealthy.’

One of two bronze lions at the entrance to The Art Institute in Chicago.

One of two bronze lions at the entrance to The Art Institute in Chicago.

The Grand Staircase is one of the many striking elements of the Art Institute

The Grand Staircase is one of the many striking elements of the Art Institute

‘Docent programs have perpetuated whiteness in these spaces,’ Williams said. ‘It’s part of the problem.’

Vaffis believes that while there is a diversity deficiency among the volunteers, the museum should take a different tact.  

‘We would like to build on what we currently have so that we don’t lose the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge but that we add to it,’ Vaffis said.

Her solution would be a return of the docents but a move to a hybrid model where some paid educators supplement the volunteer corps.    

She also said that the docents themselves could recruit from more diverse communities and co-facilitate tours with community members outside the museum. 

Williams said she respects the Art Institute of Chicago’s decision.    

‘The stories that are told are based on a docents’ experience or expertise, which oftentimes comes from a white space and are not reflective of everyone’s experience,’ she said. ‘So we need to really critically think about how stories get told and who tells them.  


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