Docents at the Art Institute of Chicago were fired on September 3 to promote diversity. The institute had 100 docents with 82 active members up until the mass firings. The new executive director of learning and engagement, Veronica Stein, sent out a mass email conveying the firings of the volunteers.
The docents are trained volunteers, with many giving 15 years or more of service to the museum. Most of the docents are elderly white women who are financially well-off.
Fox News states, “Stein said that the museum needed to take a new path ‘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.’ ”
As a thank-you to the docents, they were given a measly two-year free pass to the museum. The docent program was started in 1961 as part of the initiative of the Woman’s Board and the Junior League of Chicago. The goal was to revitalize and expand children’s programming.
Chicago Now reported that the docent program will eventually be replaced by “a limited number of paid educators.” It also says these people have less experience but are knowledgeable. The new hires will work part-time for $25 an hour. The new members will be chosen based on an income-equity-focused lens.
On September 13, the docents sent a lengthy letter to AIC president James Rondeau. In the letter, they outlined their expertise and the impact their presence has had throughout the years. The docents also requested an in-person meeting to discuss certain proposals. One of the requests was a hybrid model where the docents could act as mentors and teachers to the part-time paid educators. Although a bit outlandish, the docents also requested complementary individual lifetime memberships.
Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012, describes her role as nearly a full-time job. She said, “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together.”
In an interview, the President of the docent council, Gigi Vaffis, said, “We were surprised, [and]we were disappointed” by the sudden firing. She added, “There is an army of very highly skilled docents that are willing and ready and able to continue with arts education.” Vaffis also insisted that her docent colleagues were very diverse, both socio-economically and ethnically. Among the docents is an active-duty firefighter, as well as a condominium manager.
A spokesperson for the museum told Fox News, “…This has been twisted into unfounded accusations of reverse racism resulting in lewd threats against our staff. We’re simply pausing a volunteer educator program and would never want to diminish the contributions they have made. This should not be the roots of a culture war.”
Even the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board hit back, saying, “Instead of trashing volunteerism as inherently elitist, why not avow and attest to its ongoing value as a vital part of necessary diversification and cultural change?”
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