By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
CHICAGO TRIBUNE | SEP 27, 2021 AT 1:10 PM
Anyone with some tread on their tires who’s been fired by email can recognize the protocol. The writer blathers on about your years of dedication to your job, their gratitude for all you have done for all this time, and then hits you with some self-justifying jargon: the need to “update systems,” maybe, or the need to “rebuild” or “better serve” someone or some group. These days, perhaps even in the name of “equity” or “inclusion.”
By then you know what’s coming after all the disingenuous paragraphs: You’re canned, most likely in favor of a newer model.
Just such a weaselly letter was sent out Sept. 3 by Veronica Stein, the Woman’s Board executive director of learning and engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago. The recipients were the museum’s 150 or so volunteer docents, a beloved mainstay of the venerable cultural institution for decades and the main providers of fine, learned tours to Chicagoans, tourists, students from Chicago Public Schools and myriad other visitors to our great museum.
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.
Thus the museum had decided to can the whole lot of them, replacing the group with a small number of paid educators working longer hours.
Don’t forget to pick up your things, it said, among other pleasantries. Feel free to meet on your own, it allowed, although we won’t be able to support you. And would you like a free membership? Initially, the museum even put an expiration date on that, before backing down after the docents expressed their deep sadness at such shabby treatment after all their years of service.
And, let’s be honest, all their donations of time and money. Look at Stein’s own title. She is the Woman’s Board executive director of learning and engagement. Volunteers pay her freight.
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.
This is an absurdly reductive view of volunteering. The museum docents came from all walks of life and by no means were all of them either white or wealthy. Most of them long have seen themselves as liberals and progressive thinkers, arts lovers who have found their calling later in life and are fully aware of some of the things that have to change in museums. They just thought it would not have to be them.
Many of them likely have stayed up late at night getting themselves up to speed on what the museum expects from them now with its Art and Activism tours. They couldn’t change what they looked like, of course, nor could they knock years off their lives, nor could they reduce the size of their bank accounts, typically the result of careful saving to allow for a fulfilling retirement. Plenty of them took the CTA to the museum.
We think this was a callous move in a cruel time in America. We get the appeal of ripping off the Band-Aid, but the resultant optics, not to mention the human cost of supporters feeling devalued, clearly was not fully considered.
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?
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?
We know hardworking Chicagoans of all races who toil for a living for 40 hours a week, or more, and still spend nights and weekends in service to their communities and their city. Many of them say they get far more out of their service than those they are serving. Exactly.
Furthermore, retirees can describe works of art with the benefit of experience: They are more likely to know pain, loss and the chaos of change. All themes in the museum’s collections; all insights valuable to students. We like our tour guides to know something of life.
We hear the docents, hardly a radical group of agitators, have requested a meeting with the president of the Art Institute, James Rondeau, who should at least have signed the initial letter himself. This was a vulnerable group in today’s progressive power structure and he didn’t protect them or what they love to do.
He should meet with them, apologize and find some kind of compromise that does not involve the spectacle of long-serving devotees of a great museum left to feel like they’ve been put out with the gift-store trash.
The Art Institute of Chicago takes its mission to share our singular collections with our city and the world very seriously. We work every day to foster the exchange of ideas. Art museums cannot exist as static temples to past cultures. Dialogue and engagement with our visitors and communities are a top priority.
We seek to inspire a deep understanding of human creativity.
This commitment plays out in our approach to in-gallery education and tours. We have had the good fortune of working for 60 years with a dedicated and impressive group of volunteer educators, also known as docents. We made the decision to end our new docent classes 12 years ago, and we have spent the past decade engaged in ongoing and deliberative evaluation that involved staff, volunteer educators, school audiences and peer institutions to determine our path forward for in-gallery education.
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. This decision, conveyed directly and graciously with the leaders and members of the volunteer educator corps, shows respect for the knowledge and experience of both our dedicated volunteers and our professional staff. We value them both, and their input is critical to our path forward.
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. We are choosing to center our visitors — most particularly our students across Chicago — as we take this unexpected moment to rethink, redraw and iterate.
We have always worked to improve our offerings and lead in everything from our research and scholarship to our programming for audiences of all ages. While this past year and a half has brought a series of well-documented challenges to cultural institutions, it is certainly not the time for us to retire our ambitions and stagnate. Rather, the recent challenges gave us an opportunity to carefully examine the ways that we connect with our visitors — not only longtime museum-goers but also our potential visitors and the communities around our city we aspire to serve.
The Art Institute has listened to community partners to understand the barriers to engagement with our city’s cultural institutions. We are taking what we have learned from these conversations, and building on our previous successes. We are confident that this evolution will not just better serve Chicago, but will also serve as an example of how other cultural institutions can approach education.
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.
To be clear, this is not an issue of our volunteer educators not being dedicated and appreciated, so much as this is an opportunity to build on our continuous aspiration to be the absolute best for our city. Critical self-reflection and participatory, recuperative action is required if we are to remain relevant to the changing audiences seeking connection to art. In order to succeed, the Art Institute and our peer group must let go of the museum tenet of “this is how we have always done it” and explore new ways to ignite enthusiasm in our visitors.
Museum professionals are tasked with the ongoing evaluation and development of program delivery models — across all areas — to meet the evolving needs of our audiences. What other business or nonprofit would be criticized for doing so? The Art Institute aims to pioneer a new national art education model, and the path forward that we have outlined has garnered the full support of staff and peer institutions.
The Art Institute board of trustees supports our museum leadership’sthoughtful and measured steps, and we have every confidence in the successful realization of this new vision for in-gallery learning.
I recognize that members of our devoted Docent Council feel personally connected and invested in the museum and this pause is difficult for many.
I would respectfully ask that the same recognition be extended to our excellent staff — to their skills and expertise — they are equally devoted to, and ultimately responsible for, addressing the needs of our audiences and delivering on our civic mission each and every day. Their work requires time and focus to develop new pathways and innovative approaches.
They do not take the changes they aim to implement lightly. They take them seriously, understanding ongoing evaluation and learning as essential to their roles as educators. Our community, our civic leaders, and indeed our media should applaud investment in innovation that improves life in our city.