Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 25, 2021
The current flap over the dismissal of museum docents at the Art Institute of Chicago is a snafu buffet that tells us a lot more about the state of our values confusion than it does about the art on the wall. Digging in is worth your time.
On its face, disclosure this month that many years of volunteer work to guide visitors through the institute’s 300,000 works of art came to an end shows a botched attempt to make the faces of the museum better reflect the community it serves.
Because most of the volunteer docents — who undergo extensive training and put in a lot of time — are wealthy White women, whatever the original intent is lost amid mock shock or political reinterpretation as another excess of “woke” attitudes about race.
Even a cursory read of the many accounts and opinions about the changes underway at the museum reflect institutional self-delusion, a strange, even snooty attitude towards volunteers, apparent ageism and sexism, an odd view about whether preparation is important to show off art, and a distinct inability to recognize that dropping a big rock in racially sensitive waters these days is going to cause ripples.
Apart from all else, it reflects a big confusion about what we want museum experiences to be — from the museum point of view, for visitors, even for those who want to protect and preserve what has been.
What has turned into another page in the culture wars has almost no relationship to valuing or encouraging any understanding of Art over the ever-present need to smack home clashes over a perceived affront to White culture warriors — whether they support art museums or not.
An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, and accounts in Breitbart News, Fox News, and others headlined as the museum indecently attacking White women in the name of diversity. The Chicago Sun-Times said that actions by The Art Institute to fire its volunteer docents in favor of paid guides of more diverse background is leading to charges of anti-White bias. The Chicago Tribune editorialized the dismissal of the docents as “a callous move in a cruel time in America.”
There is no doubt that there is a racial kernel to the actions and to the narrative, though the suggestion in right-leaning information sites that no one is paying attention (“left-leaning Chicago media showed little interest in covering the issue,” said Breitbart) is belied by the number of outlets picking up on the debate.
But the real issues seem more complex: There is an obvious gap in what the museum thought it was doing as against how it is being perceived, for example. There is something here about volunteer work not being appreciated or valued, and there is a wider community problem about museums and other arts institutions flailing about how to appeal to new, younger, more ethnically diverse audiences.
James Rondeau, the Institute’s director, told The New York Times that the docents’ program had been viewed as logistically unsustainable, and that the Institute had stopped adding new volunteers 12 years ago. He said that recent vitriol was a surprise. Veronica Stein, head of the museum education group, said that the museum wanted to “rebuild our program from the ground up” with paid educators and updated protocols for recruitment and training. She offered volunteers, some of whom have been offering docent time for 20 years, museum membership.
The reaction has included abusive response to staff, increased security costs, and bad PR. That the museum could not anticipate this response in the current environment seems ludicrous.
The docent issue struck me with immediacy. My own retiree volunteer efforts over some years from a program at the local library to help teach English to new arrivals from 21 countries also was halted. It was a program that asked no questions about how people had come to New York, and that started to lose students as fear rose during the Donald Trump years over rounding up of the undocumented.
As with Chicago, the program was canceled in favor of paid staff who were younger and of color, with no review of what I, a news editor, or my partner, a retired city lawyer, were bringing to the students. It was odd and hurtful, and, in the end, served no one. We ought to be getting more volunteers, not fewer, particularly in areas where training, exposure and engagement can end up expanding audience.
The base marketing and community issues facing the Art Institute are being repeated around the country where museums wrestling with how to make their staffs and programs more diverse are emerging as cultural flash points. The goals are to create closer ties with the racially and economically diverse city the museum serves, and the faces of who greets visitors is an obvious choice. Several publications have picked up on the themes of diversifying arts programming; a 2020 article in Slate headlined “Museums Have a Docent Problem” described “the struggle to train a mostly white, unpaid tour guide corps to talk about race.”
But the combination of how the museum went about this haughty decision with what comes across as a rejection of its devoted volunteers — presumably also a donor pool — plus the knee-jerk response of the political Right to denounce all of it as over broiled political correctness shows just how far off the mark this deepening culture war is taking us.
By contrast, the recent mounting by the Metropolitan Opera of its first work by Black jazz composer Terrence Blanchard was widely hailed as a good first step for that institution.
Lost here are what we can do to encourage art education, to heighten the value of museum learning, to celebrate and to encourage volunteerism.