Chicago art museum fires volunteers to become more diverse, achieve ‘equity’

The Art Institute of Chicago is taking criticism for effectively firing at least 82 volunteer workers in the name of diversity.

The fired volunteers are known as docents — workers who greet museum visitors and lead them on tours.

“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,” Wall Street Journal opinion writer Faith Bottum reported. “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.”

So why were they fired? According to Bottum, the subtext was that the docents were too white and too financially well-off.

“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,” Bottum wrote. “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 docents themselves were not pleased. In fact, they “were surprised, disappointed and dismayed” by the letter they received from Stein, said Gigi Vaffis, president of the Art Institute docent council and a volunteer at the institute for two decades.

“Regardless of our age, regardless of our gender, regardless of our income level, we know the Art Institute’s collection extremely well and are highly trained to facilitate arts engagement across diverse audiences,” she told The New York Times. “Our goal is to facilitate tour conversations that are as dynamic as the audiences we serve.

“We have such value, knowledge, experience and passion — I wish the museum had recognized what we bring to the table,” she added. “I wish they would reconsider and bring us back.”

Another docent, Dietrich Klevorn, expressed similar sentiments.

“It was nearly a full-time job,” Klevorn told The Wall Street Journal. “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together.”

“We had to be very comprehensive about everything as we talked with them, moving through the space,” she added.

But Monica Williams, executive producer of a Colorado-based consulting firm called The Equity Project, said achieving “equity” often means tearing things down in the process.

“Sometimes equity requires taking bold steps and actions,” she told USA Today. “You really have to dismantle and disrupt the systems that have been designed to hold some up and others out.”