- The Art Institute of Chicago is getting backlash for changing its docent program.
- Conservative critics say the change is giving into ‘woke’ culture and harming mostly white docents.
- Yet museum studies experts say paying docents, as the museum plans to do, makes the field equitable.
The Art Institute of Chicago is getting backlash for what conservative critics are saying is giving into ‘woke’ culture. But changing its docent program could make museums more equitable for people of color.
At the heart of the controversy is its planned switch from a volunteer docent program to a “hybrid model that pairs paid educators and volunteers,” leading critics to accuse the institution of disenfranchising the mostly white volunteers who’ve been working at the museum for years.
The former docent class was mostly composed of financially well-off, white women, which has led some to argue that the museum is leaning too far into the pursuit of racial justice.
But experts in museum studies, a field known for being historically white, say that revamping docent programs is a long overdue and necessary step, and one that could lead to greater equity and representation for people of color in the art world.
“To me, it’s not a case of the museum firing docents because they’re white, as some of these outlets are saying,” Lisa Strong, director of the art and museum studies master’s. program at Georgetown University, told Insider.
“This is a case of them attempting to address a widespread issue across the museum industry: the pay is very low and only certain people can afford to stay in the field,” she added.
The museum has not released a report detailing the logistics of changes to the docent program.
-Emil Ferris (@Emilferrisdraws) October 27, 2021
But last month, Veronica Stein, the museum’s executive director of learning and public engagement, emailed the Institute’s decision to its docents, explaining that the docent program in its current form would be reconstructed to make it more equitable, per the Chicago Tribune.
“As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program 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 to participate,” Stein wrote in the email.
“Rather than refresh our current program, systems, and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up,” she added.
Stein, who did not respond to Insider’s request for comment, reportedly instructed the docents in that same email that the museum planned to develop a group of part-time, paid museum educators.
Anyone who had once been a docent was “invited to apply.”
When asked about the switch, a spokesperson from the Art Institute of Chicago said in an emailed statement it attributed the change in-part to COVID-19.
The pandemic impacted the museum’s ability to meet its demand with a smaller staff.
The spokesperson noted that the Institute had “long been discussing and planning for the restructuring” of its docent program, adding that it plans to eventually “transition to a hybrid model that pairs paid educators and volunteers.”
Though the museum did not explicitly mention racial equity as the motivation for revamping its docent program, museum studies experts say that increasing racial diversity in the industry could be a byproduct of the changes.
Experts say paying workers is a step towards making museums less elitist
According to Zippia, a career research company, nearly 80% of museum docents in the US are white.
“Museums by nature tend to be conservative in the way they do things,” Jon West-Bay, an independent curator and museum consultant, told Insider.
He added that “given the racial reckoning of the past year, museums can’t be neutral anymore or be silent on issues of racial justice.”
West-Bay, who has worked with numerous museums throughout his career, is intimately familiar with how the industry tends to skew towards white voices. Yet he views some museums’ decision to transition from docent to paid educator programs as “engaging more perspectives, instead of limiting them.”
“I’m not aware of any museum that has a specific agenda to decrease the voices of white people,” West-Bay said.
He contends museums are “just looking to include more voices alongside white voices to increase diversity, inclusion, and access.”
Carlos Hernández-Monagas, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s Museum and Heritage Studies Program, said that he sees a lot of older professionals who are changing careers to pursue “what they like.”
If museums are serious about bringing “underrepresented people” onboard, he argued, “you have to pay them.”
“You have to have people represented in all areas, the Board of Directors, staff, donors and sponsors,” Herández-Monagas said, adding that paid docent programs are generally a vital first step.”
“For this to work, the change has to happen from top to bottom,” the Georgetown professor added.
The pandemic has exacerbated poor working conditions and a lack of sufficient payment for workers in the museum industry. Supporters note that made the program particularly necessary.
“I teach first-gen college students and it’s really daunting for them to try to work in a museum,” Strong, said. “Who’s going to be able to work in the middle of the day for free? It’s not going to be these students.”
According to the Art Institute of Chicago spokesperson, the museum is “in the process of hiring additional paid educators who will lead tours once demand increases.” Once the museum is back to “its pre-pandemic levels,” it will also bring volunteer docents on-board again.
In the meantime, some of those former docents have joined an advisory council to assist with the creation of the hybrid program, the spokesperson said.