Replacements will be properly inclusive, based on “an income equity-focused lens.”
UPDATE: My response to the Institute’s board chairman, who attempts to avoid the main issue–race. (Here)
UPDATE: Yoo hoo, Chicago media. Where’s your coverage of the Art Institute firing its old white lady docents? (Here)
Note: The Art Institute wouldn’t give USA TODAY a copy of the letter firing the docents. You can read it at the bottom of this post.
For more than 60 years, crews of volunteer and beloved docents have faithfully, skillfully and happily introduced a million school children, museum members, donors and other groups to the treasures of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The visitors, of all backgrounds from all over America and foreign countries, were elevated by docents’ knowledge and love of the museum’s 300,000 works of art. The docents’ contribution to the museum’s world-class reputation is incalculable As is the expansion of the horizons of busloads of inner city school children.
And now the docents been fired.
Unexpectedly, rudely, immediately and for the flimsiest and most insulting of reasons: Because most are white.
They will be eventually replaced by a “limited number of paid educators,” less experienced and knowledgable part-timers who will receive a munificent $25 dollars an hour. The current 82 volunteer docents could reapply to be among the much fewer volunteer “educators” who will be chosen on the basis of “an income equity-focused lens.” Whatever that means. How well do you think that will work?
It’s hard to describe the woke nonsense in the pink slip that was delivered to the docents by the Veronica Stein, the museum’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement.” That’s why I have included her complete recitation below. Let me know if this makes sense to you.
Of course, it is couched in language that would seem not to be racist at its core; it’s done in the name of inclusion and diversity, for the greater good, etc. and etc.
Yet, boiled down, the justification for the firing is that the docents are white and women of means. In other words, women who have the time to go through the thorough, lengthy and extensive training that’s required. And who have the hours to actually conduct the tours. Women of higher education and a in thrall of the arts. Not black or brown enough are they. Not poor enough. They’re women of privilege. All too much “merit” going on at the Art Institute. Fie.
I urge you to read the Docents’ response below, itemizing all the training that is required, all the services they have performed, all the good that they have done.
This isn’t the first extraordinary stupid thing that the Art Institute has done to devalue a volunteer program and the people they serve. A few years ago, the Institute ended a program called Art Associates that arranged a day at the museum and lunch for senior centers and other organizations around Chicago. It wasn’t costing the Institute much, if anything at all.
Know what this tells me? That the Art Institute has lost its commitment to its patrons. The Institute is being run for the benefit of the woke bureaucracy that’s now in charge. Nuts to all the tourists who include Chicago on their itinerary because they want to visit the Art Institute. Nuts to the regular Chicagoans and suburbanites who take out memberships because they like to visit frequency, sometimes on the spur of the moment. Nuts to the black and brown Chicago school children who benefited mightily from the docent tours.
It’s a sad commentary on what the woke mindset has gifted to us–another reduction in the quality of our lives.
Related: A great Chicago Tribune editorial, “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents“
Docent letter to AIC President James Rondeau
September 13, 2021
Dear Director Rondeau,
We believe the Department of Learning and Public Engagement and the now former volunteer docent corps share a common goal: to create a meaningful and welcoming experience at the Art Institute of Chicago for students, visitors, donors, and members of all backgrounds.
For more than 60 years, volunteer docents enthusiastically have devoted countless hours and personal resources to facilitate audience engagement in knowledgeable, relevant, and sensitive ways, as summarized below:
• Docent Expertise
- Trained by AIC staff, 18 classes of docents have been part of this storied program. Currently, the corps consists of 82 active docents and 40 school group greeters.
- Engaged in eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent, five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas, and monthly and bi-weekly trainings to further educate ourselves with the materials, processes, and cultural context of the AIC’s 300,000 works of art.
- Researched and wrote, throughout our tenure as docents, peer- and staffreviewed object research papers, object lessons plans, and tour outlines. Docents have completed more than 1,050 such papers to represent the AIC collection accurately in their tours.
- Led in-gallery tours for K-12 th grade students, with up to 25 people, and adult/family tours with 10-50 individuals. Facilitated up to two 60-minute, in-gallery student tours per day, often with a different theme/object for 18 weeks of the academic year, plus a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families.
- Facilitated virtual tours to students, conducted by 10 volunteer docents trained and experienced in this type of tour. With more than 50 docent-led virtual tours, the spring 2021 rollout of this new AIC initiative demonstrates the growing need to meet the demand for accessible arts education in a elearning environment. The dismissal of these 10 docents diminishes widespread opportunities for teachers and their students.
- Spent an average of 15 years of volunteer service dedicated to training, research, collaboration, and facilitating the highest-quality tours worthy of an AIC program.
• Docent Impact 1. Served more than 1 million people including students, teachers, families, adults from Chicago, the suburbs, out of state, and international locations.
- Created a legacy of arts engagement across demographics. The docent program has been at the core of the AIC’s engagement with its many diverse constituencie, including Post War, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, Gen A, people who identify as ALAANA, LGBTQIA+, artists, writers, and curiosity-seekers. Docents also have been at the forefront of the AIC’s outreach to persons who currently run arts organizations and who create public policy, as well as trades persons, business leaders, innovators, educators, first responders, and others. The docent program has connected with every thread of today’s society to encourage a deeper understanding of the power of art.
- Designed and facilitated thousands of tours across the AIC’s collection.
- Customized, as the point of contact for hundreds of teachers every year, tours specific to the needs of teachers and their students, often on the spot. These tours included AP subject tours, Spanish, English-as-asecond-language tours, along with Dutch, Japanese, and American Studies tours, book-based tours, classroom-themed programming, and tours based on teacher curricula.
- Helped design, pilot, and train fellow docents and facilitated current tour frameworks specific to issues facing the public today. The subject matters of these tour frameworks, still in existence today, are as follows:
a. Art + Activism
b. Art Across Cultures
c. Art + Science
d. Art + Access tours
- Developed Docent ArtBox, a repository of shared scholarship. Proposed in 2005 by docent Martine Gary, this website was developed by the docents, who currently own and manage it. The website includes more than 1,263 entries covering art historical/exhibition-specific scholarship, training notes and videos, object-specific research, and lesson plans written by docents and reviewed by museum staff. Docent ArtBox is the first of its kind among docent programs across the country.
- Created innovative, endowed memorial and giving programs. Docents have endowed the following programs that arose from their passion for the future of new scholarship and accessibility to arts education:
a. Bernice Nordenberg Memorial Lecture (2003) and Carole A. Given Winston Memorial Lecture (2015). Two distinct, annual lectures that provide contemporary discourse about arts and arts education to the docent/greeter corps.
b. Ruthie’s Bus Fund (2014). Endowed by Ruth Powell (original docent class of 1961) after 53 years of arts education service, this fund has made it possible for an estimated 3,000 students to engage with art at the museum. Affectionately known as “Ruthie,” Ruth Powell proposed the fund after she saw the cancellation of student tours due to transportation costs. The bus fund is generously supported by the docent/greeter corps.
c. 2003 National Docent Symposium Endowment. Proceeds from the Symposium, organized by 15 Chicago docents and attended by more than 550 docents from the United States, Canada, and Israel, have been endowed to the museum. Every year, interest from the endowment is donated to an AIC department on a rotating, alphabetical basis.
- Established the Docent/Greeter Diversity and Inclusion Committee in 2014. Docents formed this important committee prior to the museum’s training dedicated to diversity and inclusion. The committee’s mission is to build awareness of implicit biases and to provide learning opportunities to foster diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in tours and ourselves. We sponsor lectures, workshops, safe-space conversations, readings, and self-reflection opportunities for docents and greeters to increase self-awareness toward racial, income, gender equality, and cultural diversity.
- Continued to hone docent education and training skills during the challenge of COVID-19. Amid the pandemic and AIC shutdown, the current corps of docents and greeters virtually led and participated in training, study groups, and workshops that emphasized how to plan tours featuring art across cultures, illustrating art and activism, and catering to students with special access needs.
Despite our training, experience, and passion for working with both students and adults, on Friday, September 3, 2021, Veronica Stein announced the end of our 60year-old docent program. Ms. Stein said that the 82 volunteer docents would be replaced by six part-time employees, and that in 2023, “unpaid volunteer educators will be reintroduced.” She also stated that the rebuilt volunteer educator program will be based on “an income equity-focused lens.”
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. We do not believe that bringing the 60-year-old docent program to such an abrupt end was necessary, as we see other paths forward. We offer some alternative suggestions and ideas below.
We applaud the AIC’s recognition that it needs to better embrace diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. We agree that the museum, from top to bottom must better reflect the Chicago area community that it serves. We also believe that our knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment can contribute to achieving our mutual goal — the museum’s and ours — of making the museum a more welcome place for all. As members of the museum community, we plan to continue to be role models for volunteer museum educators everywhere.
Dismissing current volunteer educators will mostly affect the students and adults who expect to participate in tours by highly trained, creative, and caring docents with a wealth of experience. The drastic reduction in docent educators announced by Veronica Stein will significantly reduce capacity for student and adult in-gallery and virtual tours.
To that end, the Docent Council respectfully asks the Art Institute of Chicago for a meeting to discuss the following proposals:
• Implement a hybrid educator model (paid/unpaid) for the next three years, during which volunteer educators/docents would work alongside new part-time, paid educators to increase student accessibility to arts education. Charge the experienced docents with the task of being mentors and valuable resources for future educators.
• Collaborate with multiple AIC volunteer docents to actively craft, pilot, recruit, train AIC’s future educator corps.
• Publicly recognize, through the AIC’s decision-makers, the breadth of academic rigor, commitment, dedication, and personal resources that docents contributed to AIC without compensation for 60 years.
- Honor the legacy of arts education facilitated by docents by displaying a memorial plaque listing every AIC docent who served during the
- past 60 years, stating their years of service. The plaque should be placed prominently in the Ryan Education Center.
- A letter to all AIC museum stakeholders and community members, officially announcing:
a. The museum’s decision to end the current docent program.
b. The museum’s recognition of the docent program’s pure and forward-looking mission of giving Chicago youth the gift of art and education. The museum’s docent organization was created, led, and perpetuated by volunteers, whose passion for art fueled this program for more than half a century – it deserves to be recognized.
c. The museum’s acknowledgement that a volunteer effort of this magnitude and longevity will never be replicated, but that it can and will serve as a strong foundation for a future iteration of museum education.
• Opportunity to publish on the AIC website and member magazine a thank you note from the docent corps to the constituency we served.
• Complimentary individual lifetime memberships.
It is our hope that these comments be taken as constructive, so that accessibility to art, and arts education among all museum volunteers, staff, donors, AIC members, students, and guests be equitable and inclusive.
We request an in-person meeting with you to explain fully our perspective regarding the end of the current docent program, and regarding our commitment to the healthy evolution of AIC’s arts education. Docent Council President, Gigi Vaffis (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Vice President Patricia M. Fuentes (email@example.com) will contact your office this week to set up a meeting at the Art Institute.
On behalf of all past and present docents who have walked the halls of the volunteer educator program, we thank you for taking the time to reflect on our response.
Art Institute of Chicago 2021-2022 Docent Council
Gigi Vaffis, President Patricia M. Fuentes, Vice President Helen Vick, Secretary James Sturm, Treasurer Catherine Thomson, Monday Rep Lisa Seifried, Monday Rep Dietrich Klevorn, Tuesday Rep Chris Burke, Tuesday Rep Kathy Sargent, Wednesday Rep Sarah Davy, Thursday Rep Kate Flores, Thursday Rep Jim Boehner, Friday Rep Joy Daskal, Co-Chair, Diversity and Inclusion Committee
Veronica Stein’s pink slip to docents:.
September 3, 2021
Dear volunteer educators,
Thank you for your ongoing support of the Art Institute. I continue to be incredibly grateful for your dedication to our community and for your meaningful work.
I write to you today with an update on our volunteer educator program and our overall approach to enhancing our visitors’ experience of the museum through sustained, meaningful engagement with the collection. Driven by our mission to share our singular collections with our city and the world, the Art Institute is a place of gathering; we foster the exchange of ideas and inspire an expansive, inclusive understanding of human creativity. Without question, much of this exchange and inspiration happens directly in our galleries––on school tours, during family visits, and recently, through virtual programs.
As a leader in our field, we continue to evolve our systems to better meet the needs of our visitors, supporters, and staff. Over the last year, we have had the opportunity to evaluate our volunteer educator program. As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program 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 to participate. Rather than refresh our current program, systems, and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up. This means the program’s current iteration will come to an end.
The museum’s docent program was first established in 1961 with the support of the Woman’s Board and the Junior League of Chicago to revitalize and expand programming for children. Since that time, the program has benefited from the active engagement and enthusiasm of devoted volunteers, reaching countless students and visitors. As we honor the legacy of these contributions and express gratitude to the numerous volunteers who have brought our galleries to life for so many audiences, we acknowledge this moment as an opportunity to grow into a new phase of this work.
We have developed a three-year plan during which we will design, develop, and implement a new, sustainable program that is more closely aligned with our redefined mission, values, and identity. The museum aims to build a responsive, sustainable, and inclusive program that integrates the goals outlined in our strategic plan: to honor and embrace our civic role by investing in Chicago-area learners, educators, and creatives and to reinvigorate in-gallery learning programs to promote accessibility, equitable teaching approaches, and greater inclusion of visitors’ cultures. We aspire to cultivate lifelong visitors, prioritize the evolving needs of our Chicagoland communities, and serve as a model for peer institutions.
Central to this new program will be the development of a pool of part-time, paid museum educators. By scaling back our program to a limited number of paid educators, the Learning and Public Engagement department will be better positioned to train, support, and manage this staff, facilitate program evaluation, and perform quality assurance. We will eventually grow this initially small pool of paid educators to fit the needs of the institution. Importantly, all current volunteer educators are invited to apply for the paid museum educator positions.
The program will take a phased approach. From now until December 2021, we will transition to a ratio of 80% in-gallery tours and programming to 20% virtual tours and programming. Overall educational programming will continue at a reduced scale. Staff will design models for educator recruitment, training, and assessment, identifying and dismantling barriers that have historically limited participation.
Another key element will be a five-member advisory board composed of volunteer educators and leaders in the museum education field to help inform our path forward. While this group will function in a consultative rather than decision-making capacity, we believe that it is critical to honor our volunteer educators’ experience and insight as we embark on our programmatic design process.
In 2022, we will increase our capacity and reinstitute the Ryan Learning Center volunteer program––both for greeter roles and for art-making events. Then, in 2023, unpaid volunteer educators will be re-introduced via a redesigned model that includes an updated recruitment, application, training, and assessment protocols.
In recognition of your dedicated work and passionate support of the museum and our visitors, we are providing you and all our volunteer educators complimentary memberships through 2023. We will also offer exclusive access to two annual lectures presented at the museum. We are eager to support our community through meaningful and culturally responsive arts learning experiences, and we thank you for your continued collaboration and support. We very much hope that you will stay connected with us as we build on this remarkable history.
With sincere appreciation,
Veronica Stein Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public EngagementType your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.