To diversify its workforce, the Art Institute of Chicago fired all its volunteers and guides, most of whom were older White women.
"We were shocked, we were disappointed," Gigi Vaffis (president of the docent council) said during an interview on radio station WBEZ about the firings. "There are a lot of highly skilled docents who are ready and willing to continue arts education.
The Art Institute had more than 100 docents. 82 were still active when Veronica Stein, executive director of learning engagement, sent an email to fire them all on Sept. 3. Docents are volunteers who give tours in museums. At the Art Institute, their average time of service was 15 years.
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According to the outlet, the firings were triggered by the fact that the majority of docent staff consisted of financially successful, older White women. Stein stated that the museum had to change its direction to allow all members of the community to participate. It also needed to address issues of class, income equity, and not require financial flexibility.
As a thank you for their service, the museum offered two-years free admission to fired docents.
It is America's oldest and most important museum. The docent program was launched in 1961 by the Womens Board and the Junior League of Chicago.
On Sept. 13, the docents wrote a letter detailing how the staff had "engaged in 18 months of twice-a week training to qualify for docent status, five years continuous research and writing to satisfy the criteria of 13 museum content area, and monthly or bi-weekly trainings that further educate us with the materials and context of the cultural context."
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Dietrich Klevorn, a docent from 2012, said that it was almost a full-time job. "We had to spend a lot time in the museum researching, studying, and putting together tours."
She said, "We had to be very thorough about everything as we spoke with them, moving around the space." Klevorn was Klevorn's only interview to WSJ. The museum had reportedly asked them not to talk to the media. Fox News reported later that Sunday that the museum had not asked docents to not speak to media. However, the institute informed Fox News that Klevorn was the only docent to speak on the record to WSJ.
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"Why not spend some time recruiting docents from diverse backgrounds? The corps could be restructured to ensure its renewal. Docents in need of financial assistance or child care should be supported. A hybrid model is possible, at least up to the time that current docents leave. The board's Sept. 27 opinion piece reflected this.
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"Why not attest to the ongoing value of volunteerism in cultural diversification and cultural change, instead of bashing it as inherently elitist?"
Robert Levy (chairman of the Art Institute) defended firing the docents in an op-ed that he wrote days later. He stated that the plan to do this had been in place for 12 years.
He wrote that "Critical self reflection and participatory, recuperative actions are required if we want to remain relevant for the changing audiences seeking connection with art"
Klevorn, a Black man, admitted to WSJ that docent staff "was not a demographically representative group." Vaffis noted, however, that the staff included a fireman as well as a condo manager.
"The Art Institute still hasn't explained why the collections had to be thrown out in masse and not distributed over time. The museum seems to be in a self-destructive overcorrection. The museum has adopted the language diversity, inclusion, and equity so fully that it was willing fire the same upper-middle-class volunteers it uses for charitable donations," WSJ reported.
Fox News reported that the Art Institute said Sunday in a comment that they had not fired anyone.
"We thought that we were being very clear in laying out our plan. But somehow, this has been twisted to unfounded accusations against reverse racism which resulted in lewd threats towards our staff. We are simply pausing a volunteer educator programme and we would never wish to diminish their contributions. "This should not be the roots for a culture war," said a spokesperson for the institute.