CHICAGO, IL – Citing a need to “diversify” their staff, the Art Institute of Chicago fired all 82 of their active docents last month, which were mostly made up of older, White, upper-middle class women who were trained volunteers for the museum.
The fired women, according to docent council president Gigi Vaffis, were “surprised” and “disappointed” by the out-of-the-blue development.
“We were surprised, we were disappointed,” she said. “There is an army of very highly skilled docents that are willing and ready and able to continue with arts education.”
The docents were relieved of duties via an email sent on September 3 by Veronica Stein, the executive director of learning and engagement, due to the fact that the docents were made up of middle-aged, White, financially well-off women. Stein noted in the email that the Art Institute needed to diversify their staff “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.”
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Docents are highly-trained volunteers who lead museum tours, with the 82 fired women averaging 15 years of unpaid service each; according to a letter sent on September 13 by the fired docents, an exceptional amount of training and dedication was required to earn the position.
“Staff engaged in eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent, five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas, and monthly and bi-weekly trainings to further educate ourselves with the materials, processes and cultural context of the museum’s pieces,” the letter said.
The Art Institute rewarded the departed docents with a two-year free pass to the museum as a show of “gratitude.”
Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board denounced the firings in a September 27 opinion piece, calling Stein’s move “weaselly.”
“Why not invest some time in recruiting new, diverse docents? Why not grow the corps in such a way that it’s refreshed? Why not help docents who need help with expenses or child care? Why not have a hybrid model, at least until the current docents exit?” the board said. “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?”
The Wall Street Journal noted that the Art Institute may have shot itself in the foot – in a financial sense – with their firings of the same well-off women that they will likely soon be asking to donate money to the museum.
“Still, the Art Institute hasn’t explained why they had to be jettisoned en masse and not diversified over time,” the WSJ said. “The museum appears to be in the grips of a self-defeating overcorrection. It has adopted the language of diversity, inclusion and equity so completely that it was willing to fire the same upper-middle class volunteers it relies on for charitable donations.”
The Art Institute told Fox News in a comment on Sunday that accusations of “reverse racism” against the museum are “unfounded” and “have not fired anyone,” and are simply “pausing a volunteer educator program.”