Why the Art Institute of Chicago’s New Docent Program Faces Whitelash

In September, docents at the Art Institute of Chicago received a letter announcing that the current docent program would be dissolved. Veronica Stein, the Women’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement, wrote that the department would be hiring a new cohort of paid museum educators and reconceiving its volunteer 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.” The intention to rebuild “from the ground up,” meant that “the program’s current iteration will come to an end.”

The backlash was swift. It began with the Chicago Tribune editorial board, which insinuated that the change came because docents had been “found wanting as a demographic,” and used dehumanizing language to describe the letter that Stein, an African-American woman, sent the group. The Wall Street Journal was less delicate in its charge of anti-White racism, putting it right in the subtitle of its article.

Soon repetitive articles were making the rounds of rightwing media, hinting at white nationalist “Great Replacement” theory. This isn’t hyperbole: Recently Jacqui Shine spotted a sign on Michigan Avenue that makes the laughably false assertion that the museum “hates white people.” The museum and its staff have fielded anger and threats. The press coverage set off a salvo in the calculated strategy of rightwing backlash against racial justice that has attempted to stigmatize “critical race theory” and everything associated with it. (Indeed, the blogger who posted Stein’s letter and the docents’ response used that catchphrase to describe the museum’s move.) Every docent who took their complaint to the press knew, or should have known, that this is our political context.

Sign close to South Michigan Avenue and East Monroe Street, close to the Art Institute, found by Jacqui Shine (image courtesy Jacqui Shine)

I am a daughter and granddaughter of White women who worked in museums. My grandmother volunteered her time after retirement; my mother continues to do so. But I also study community art and public art, I pay attention to ways institutions try (and often fail) to promote racial justice. I’ve taught art history to Black high school students, and I know that in a city as diverse as Chicago, the face the museum presents to visitors simply should not be all — or even mostly — White.

Many people I know have anecdotes about hearing docents put their racial and gender bias blatantly on display. But #NotAllDocents do this, and I don’t want to disparage the art historical expertise that the museum’s docents possess. The training regimen in the Art Institute’s program is deep and thorough, as the docents made clear in their own letter to the museum’s director.

That letter itself, though, might give one pause. It’s a lengthy, detailed display of expertise. It’s also the work of a group that expects to operate with autonomy by virtue of donating its labor — part and parcel of the fact that many belong to the museum’s philanthropic class. A colleague familiar with the department referred to the Docents’ Council as “a social club with its own specific fabric.” Their social connections are interwoven inside and outside the museum, with prestige, expertise, and the sense of connectedness as key threads. It might not be possible simply to thin their ranks in order to create more diversity, or to change the culture from within. The letter, snubbing the young, Black female department director by going over her head to her boss, smacks of muscle flexing by members of the donor class. Perhaps it’s not expertise — or demographics per se — but the confidence and entitlement that come with privilege, that became a stumbling block to effective collaboration on the department’s priorities.

A docent speaking on their staircase of the Entry Hall at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC (December 2018) (photo by Missvain courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Art Institute knows it needs to forge stronger relationships with an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse public. Like other museums, it has sometimes struggled. Changes to its approach to engagement started before the political events of 2020 put racial justice more forcefully on the institutional radar. For the past 12 years, no new docents have been added to the group. How surprising could this move have been?

In 2017, the museum’s Education Department became the Department of Learning and Public Engagement, a change that put it in the mainstream of the field. Education departments, which translated curatorial departments’ specialized art historical knowledge into lectures fit for the public, are evolving in a broader shift from what Paulo Freire called the “banking” concept of education to a “problem-posing” model. In a problem-posing model, the question is sometimes more important than the answer. Learning communities co-create knowledge. Knowing a great deal about art doesn’t necessarily translate into making effective pedagogical choices, having cultural competency to collaborate with different groups, or being willing to let go of expertise on behalf of that collaboration.

At the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum on the South Side, many docents — who are paid — are alumni of the Odyssey Project, a free program of college-level humanities classes for low-income adults who’ve had limited access to higher education. At the Smart, as Jason Pallas, Manager of Community Engagement and Arts Learning put it to me, “You won’t get a didactic, academic talk that interprets an artwork for you; you’ll be in relationship with a community member who has relevant experience that opens up the possibilities contained within the artworks.”

A student docent leads a conversation as part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Jobs at Art Museums program for college students (photograph by Mark Campbell and courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago).

Many of my former students, including students of color, have struggled to find paid work that enables them to pursue their love of the arts. Both within and outside this group are ample skilled and thoughtful art lovers, young and old, who come from the communities the museum is trying to connect with. They can put a paycheck to immediate use. The museum and its visitors will benefit from a new corps of diverse educators. The museum can also do more. Consistent with the collaborative spirit of a new approach to engagement, the Art Institute could also do the right thing and recognize its employees’ organizing efforts. This way, it would allow its new staff educators to join a workforce that is not only paid, but unionized.

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