A Chicago museum 'fired' its volunteers. Why diversity consultants say it was the right move.

The Art Institute of Chicago, like many museums across the country, pledged to improve equity and diversity this year.
The museum's latest effort was to let go of its docent program. This decision, which took place over 100 years ago, has brought the museum back into the national spotlight. It also drew criticism from conservative media and frustrated docents.

Major museums have had docent programs for many years. These are volunteer-guided tours that take visitors through the museum's collection. Museum equity consultants claim that the programs are obsolete, have too few barriers to entry, and often favor a specific demographic: White, wealthy women.

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The controversy surrounding the decision of the art institute has ignited debate about docent programs, equity, and consultants. Docents, museum staff, and Chicago residents disagree over how to proceed: To edit or dismantle the existing program.

Sometimes, equity means taking bold actions and steps, according to Monica Williams, executive producer of The Equity Project in Colorado, which has clients including the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. It is necessary to disrupt and dismantle the systems that were designed to keep some people up and others down.

Art Institute facing backlash over dismantling its docent program

Veronica Stein, museum's executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement, emailed more than 100 docents on Sept. 3 to inform them that the current iteration of the program was ending.

Stein stated to the Wall Street Journal, that the museum should be able to move in a way that allows all income levels to participate, addresses issues of class equity and financial flexibility, and responds to income equity and income inequality.

USA TODAY was not able to obtain a copy the AIC's Sept. 3 email from them, but they said that the pause is part a multi-year transition towards a hybrid model that includes both paid and volunteer educators.

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This decision sparked a storm on social media from conservative media. In an editorial entitled Shame on Art Institute, the Chicago Tribune condemned the decision and recommended that the museum recruit diverse docents.

The institute's docent council wrote a Sept. 13 letter protesting the suspension of the program. The letter explained the docents' expertise and stated that they had been trained twice per week for 18 months, done five-years of research and writing, as well as participated in biweekly and monthly trainings.

The letter stated that volunteer docents have dedicated countless hours and personal resources for audience engagement over 60 years.

USA TODAY spoke with Gigi Vaffis (president of the AICs docent board), who said that she and other docents were left feeling blindsided by the decision. They weren't part in the decision-making. She said that there is not much information about the multi-year AICs plan.

Vaffis, who is a docent for nearly two decades, stated that we didn't know. We were both very surprised. I was shocked.

Experts believe that docent programs are laced with inequalities

Museum equity consultants advocate for the transition of volunteer positions to paid jobs as they help museums better educate their public about the art displayed on their walls.

Williams from Equity Project stated that this shift would allow people to work weekdays and do significant amounts of unpaid work. She said that museums will be able to move away from wealthy and white docents if they are able to transition to paid positions.

Williams stated that docent programs perpetuate whiteness in these spaces. It's part and parcel of the problem.

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Williams stated that she respected the decision of the AICs and believes more diversity in the work of museum workers will improve the quality art education.

She said that stories are often based on the expertise or experience of docents and may not reflect everyone's experience. We need to critically examine how stories are told and who tells them.

Mike Murawski is a consultant for museums and the author of Museums as Agents of Change. He said that there was always tension between volunteer programs and equity efforts.

He said that there were often gaps in the perspectives and experience of those who are leading these groups in their work to educate the community. These types of programs are responsible for a lot the systemic racism, colonialism and other issues that museums have had to deal with in the past.

Murawski stated that there was a lot of controversy when the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum discontinued its docent program in 2014. Instead, they started an initiative for younger volunteers. Many thought the museum should close. He said that things are now better. They're doing great.

Murawski stated that the AIC's decision was "the right decision", even though it might feel like they are standing alone. "Five years down the line, I believe they'll be very happy that they made these changes," Murawski said.

"We must elevate Black, Brown and Indigenous voices"

Vaffis acknowledged that there is some diversity in the volunteer corps, but she recognized that more could be done. Vaffis didn't know the demographic breakdown of the volunteer corps. The public is not able to access demographic data on income, race and gender.

The docent council, however, stated that there were "other paths forward" in a letter it sent to the museum.

USA TODAY's Vaffis stated that they would like to continue to build upon what they have.

Vaffis would like docents to return to the museum as soon possible, and that paid educators be added to the existing docent corps. This is as the museum shifts towards a hybrid model.

She suggested that docents be recruited from more diverse communities, and that they co-facilitate tours outside of the museum with members of the community. She suggested that the program could be extended to allow people who work during the working day to still take part in the evening tours.

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She stated that "our perspective is there's an option to do it so we don't lose out on two more years of public art education."

Museum consultants agree that sometimes, the best way to move forward is not by making changes to existing programs.

Murawski stated that docent programs can often be stuck in a "long-standing tradition of how things should be", which can make it difficult for them to adapt.

He said that this could lead to "elements white dominant culture, colonialism, and racism that are systemic in museums".

He said that there are so many legacy structures and obstacles built into docent programs to begin with, it needs more than just some editing. These programs need to be paused and rethought thoroughly before being rebuilt.

Williams said that the first step in rethinking docent programs was only one. There are more changes needed, such as in the hiring practices, diversity at museums boards and fair pay for artists.

Williams stated that "we have to make changes which are uncomfortable for people." "We must elevate Black, brown, and Indigenous voices without people misunderstanding that it's at cost of white voices."

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

This article first appeared on USA TODAY. Chicago Art Institute dismantles its docent program in equity efforts