A Chicago museum ‘fired’ its volunteers. Why diversity consultants say it was the right move. – USA TODAY

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Like many museums nationwide, the Art Institute of Chicago pledged this year to better prioritize equity and diversity.

But the latest of these efforts – a decision to dismantle its decades-old docent program, letting go over 100 of its volunteers – has launched the museum into the national spotlight and resulted in backlash from conservative media and frustrated docents.

Docent programs have long been mainstays of major museums where trained volunteers guide visitors through a museum’s collection. But museum equity consultants say the programs are outdated, have too many barriers to entry and, as a result, often skew toward a certain demographic: Wealthy, white women. 

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The controversy around the art institute’s decision has reignited debate about docent programs and equity as consultants, museum staff, docents and Chicago residents clash over the way forward: Whether to edit the existing program or to dismantle and rebuild.

“Sometimes equity requires taking bold steps and actions,” said Monica Williams, executive producer of The Equity Project, a Colorado-based consulting firm whose clients include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. “You really have to dismantle and disrupt the systems that have been designed to hold some up and others out.” 

Art Institute faces backlash for dismantling docent program

On Sept. 3, Veronica Stein, the museum’s executive director of learning and public engagement, emailed the museum’s more than 100 docents telling them the program’s current iteration would be coming to an end.

Stein told the Wall Street Journal that the museum must move “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.” 

The AIC did not provide a copy of the Sept. 3 email to USA TODAY but said the pause is part of a “multi-year transition” to a “hybrid model that incorporates paid and volunteer educators.” 

The decision led to a social media furor with conservative media. The Chicago Tribune decried the move in an editorial titled “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents” and suggested the museum instead recruit new, diverse docents.

Meanwhile, the institute’s docent council sent a letter Sept. 13 protesting the pause of the program. The letter described the docents’ expertise, adding that they had trained twice a week for 18 months, done five years of research and writing, and participated in monthly and biweekly trainings.

“For more than 60 years, volunteer docents enthusiastically have devoted countless hours and personal resources to facilitate audience engagement in knowledgeable, relevant, and sensitive ways,” the letter said.

Gigi Vaffis, president of the AIC’s docent council, told USA TODAY that she and other docents felt blindsided by the decision and weren’t included in the decision-making. Even now, she said there are few details about what the AIC’s multi-year plan will look like.

“We had no idea,” said Vaffis, who has been a docent for almost two decades. “We were very surprised. I was honestly a little gobsmacked.”

Experts say inequities are baked into docent programs

As museums confront how to better educate the public of the art on their walls and reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, museum equity consultants have long advocated for transitioning volunteer positions to paid. 

Williams, from the Equity Project, said this shift would open the doors for people who cannot afford to work on weekdays or do a significant amount of unpaid work. If docent programs switch to paid positions, she said it will help museums move away from “a particular demographic of mostly white and wealthy.”

“Docent programs have perpetuated whiteness in these spaces,” Williams said. “It’s part of the problem.”

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As a result, Williams said she respects the AIC’s decision, saying more diversity among people who work in museums will strengthen the quality of art education. 

“The stories that are told are based on a docents’ experience or expertise, which oftentimes comes from a white space and are not reflective of everyone’s experience,” she said. “So we need to really critically think about how stories get told and who tells them.”

Mike Murawski, a museum consultant and author of “Museums as Agents of Change,” said there has long been a tension between equity efforts and volunteer programs.

“Because of who is leading these groups, there are often gaps in the perspectives and experiences they represent in their work in educating the community,” he said. “So I think a lot of the systemic racism and colonialism that museums have always had in their institutions come through these types of programs.”

When the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum ended its docent program in 2014 in favor of an initiative for younger volunteers who often work for college credit, Murawski said there was an uproar with many saying the museum might as well close. But now, he said. “they’re doing just fine.”

“I think it’s the right decision, even if it may feel like they’re standing out alone on this one,” Murawski said of the AIC’s move. “Five years from now, I think they’ll be extremely glad that they’ve made these changes.”

‘We need to elevate Black, brown and Indigenous voices’

Vaffis said there is some diversity among the volunteer corps but acknowledged more could be done. She didn’t have the demographic breakdown offhand; racial, gender and income level demographics are not readily available to the public.

But in its letter to the museum, the docent council said there are “other paths forward.”

“We would like to build on what we currently have so that we don’t lose the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge but that we add to it,” Vaffis told USA TODAY. 

Vaffis wants docents back in the museum as soon as possible and for paid educators to be added to the existing docent corps as the museum moves toward a hybrid model. 

She also suggested docents recruit from more diverse communities and co-facilitate tours with community members outside the museum. Another useful change to the program would be opening more time slots so that people who work during the day can still participate in the evenings, she added.

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“Our perspective is there’s a way to do it so that we don’t have to lose out on another two years of public arts education,” she said.

But museum consultants say sometimes the way forward is not about making changes to programs.

Docent programs often have “long-standing legacies of how things are supposed to be” that can make them difficult to adapt, Murawski said. 

That risks continuing “elements of white dominant culture, colonialism and racism that are systemic within museums,” he added. 

“There’s just so many legacy structures and barriers baked into a docent program to begin with that it requires more than just a little editing to fix,” he said. “I think that these programs really need to be put on pause and fully rethought, then rebuilt from the ground up.”

Williams added that rethinking docent programs is only a first step. More changes are needed, including in hiring practices, diversity on museum boards, and equitable pay for artists.

“We have to make changes that are uncomfortable for people,” Williams said. “We need to elevate Black, brown and Indigenous voices without people misunderstanding that it’s at the expense of white voices.”

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