The Art Institute of Chicago fired their all-volunteer staff of docents because they failed to meet a diversity quota.

In museum-speak, a docent is a trained volunteer who greets visitors and guides them through the collection, filling in details of the artists’ lives, speaking to the visual elements of the work on display and adding art-history context. The Art Institute used to have more than 100 docents, 82 of them active, until Veronica Stein, an executive director of learning and engagement, sent a Sept. 3 email canning all of them. In gratitude for their long, unpaid service—averaging 15 years each—the Art Institute offered the involuntarily retired guides a two-year free pass to the museum.

The apparent problem was that the Art Institute docents were mostly older white women of above-average financial means and with plenty of time on their hands. The institute needs to go to a more professional model, Ms. Stein explained, “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 museum’s docent program was established in 1961, an initiative of the Woman’s Board, a support group for the museum, and the Junior League of Chicago. 

Wall Street Journal

Veronica Stein is a racist and an ageist and there is no reason to treat her otherwise. No one should give a damn what that bigot’s skin color is.

In her role as Woman’s Board Executive Director, Learning and Public Engagement, Stein will explore what museum education can be, guiding a holistic vision for learning and creativity that fulfills the needs of diverse constituents of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. Stein’s strategic thinking, enthusiasm, and energy will shape our path forward, and her particular experience with organizational culture transformation, capacity building, and accessibility, as well as her impactful work with students and educators, will be assets to meeting the changing needs of the museum and our communities. Radiating out from the newly improved and accessible space of the Ryan Learning Center, Stein will lead the museum’s relationships with various constituencies…

“I am delighted that the Art Institute shares the priorities that have guided my work throughout my career: designing culturally responsive programming and anti-racist curricula, cultivating fully accessible spaces, and ensuring staff wellness and learning,” said Stein. “Setting the newly enhanced Ryan Learning Center in motion, and further strengthening partnerships with the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, and BIPOC cultural institutions, will be central to my work.”

Stein’s background and experience make her uniquely qualified for this role. At Snow City she provided strategic direction for programmatic design, implementation, optimization, and expansion, spearheading the development of virtual learning platforms while transforming programs toward antiracist, trauma-informed modules.

Art Institute of Chicago press release

The museum undermined its own civic mission and deserves to suffer the consequences.

The Art Institute docents received rigorous training. In a Sept. 13 letter protesting their firing, the docents noted that each of them had “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 Art Institute’s collection.

“It was nearly a full-time job,” said Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012. (Ms. Klevorn was the only docent who agreed to speak to the Journal, rejecting the institute’s request that they not talk to the media.) “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together,” she continued. “We had to be very comprehensive about everything as we talked with them, moving through the space.”

A blistering Sept. 27 editorial in the Chicago Tribune criticized the Art Institute’s actions as shameful and done in a “weaselly” way. It was one of the few mentions of the story in Chicago-area media. In reply, Robert Levy, chairman of the Art Institute, defended the decision of his “professional staff” to dismiss the amateur volunteers. Though the docents were given no warning before being fired, Mr. Levy insisted that the plan had been in the works for 12 years: “Critical self-reflection and participatory, recuperative action is required if we are to remain relevant to the changing audiences seeking connection to art.”

Ms. Vaffis insisted that the docents were a diverse group, if not ethnically then at least socio-economically, with an active fireman and a condominium manager in their ranks. However, Ms. Klevorn, who is black and owns a Chicago gallery, concedes that her fellow docents were “not a demographically representative population.”

Still, the Art Institute hasn’t explained why they had to be jettisoned en masse and not diversified over time. 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.

I hope it goes under.

The Art Institute of Chicago has fired all of its trained volunteers and guides who were mostly older white women, to diversify its team. “We were surprised and disappointed,” said Gigi Vaffis, president of the Docent Council. She continued “There is an army of very highly skilled docents that are willing, ready and able to continue with arts education.” The Art Institute used to have more than 100 docents until they were sent an email firing them all… The firings were apparently sparked by the fact that most of the docent staff was composed of older white women. Veronica Stein, the museum’s executive director for engagement, also didn’t like the fact that so many of the women were financially well off.

New York Post

The women’s very existence was politically incorrect. This is “a victory for the Woke Warriors” as Gregory Hilton phrased it. Veronica Stein rejected the interests of the museum and what would best serve its civic mission because that didn’t suit her superficial viewpoint of what that should look like. In her mind knowledge and experience constitute a less valuable contribution than a demographic reflection of the intended audience.

My mother was a volunteer docent for a large state historical museum. This story hits home for me in that respect.