If you’re fortunate enough to visit the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) you will see some extraordinary works of art: Vincent Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which spans ten feet and is one of the defining works of pointillist painting.
What you will no longer enjoy is the insight about such works that was once generously given to the public by the museum’s docents. In September, the AIC announced that it was eliminating its 122-person army of volunteers. Why? The official explanation was that the museum decided to replace them with a smaller group of paid guides. But the real impetus was the optics of having a largely older, white, female group of volunteers guiding patrons through an institution that has recently committed itself to an aggressive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policy.
As the docents were told, they were welcome to reapply to the museum’s new volunteer “educators” program, slated for return in 2023, but there would be far fewer positions and, according to the museum’s newly-hired Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement, Veronica Stein, the positions that would exist would be selected through “an income equity-focused lens.” In a September 3 letter to the docents, unceremoniously shuttering their 60-year-old program, Stein wrote, “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.”
In other words, because most of the volunteers happened to be people who could afford to give their time without payment, and not enough non-white people volunteered to serve, the program had to be destroyed. The Chicago Tribune was so incensed by Stein’s decision that it published an editorial whose title speaks for itself: “Shame on the Art Institute for Summarily Canning its Volunteer Docents.”
The docents understood what Stein refused to say outright. In a letter to the museum’s president, they noted, “We believe we were dismissed (1) because the museum’s perspective is that the current docent corps’ demographics do not meet the need of the strategic plan (2) the museum concluded that reengineering the docent program was a step towards achieving the museum’s important goal of creating a culture of diversity and inclusion.”
Far from opposing the DEI goals of the museum, however, the docents “applaud the AIC’s recognition that it needs to better embrace diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.” They noted their efforts to recruit non-white volunteers from different backgrounds.
Training to become a docent at a major museum is rigorous; at the AIC it involved twice-weekly sessions for a year and a half before applicants were deemed qualified to serve as docents, with continued education during their service and regular training session to prepare them to present new exhibits. Before the AIC axed them, typical docents at the museum had been volunteering for 15 years.
Not surprisingly, the AIC docent story was not covered by mainstream media outlets. It is, however, indicative of a trend toward casting white people—and in this case, white women—as a problem based solely on their race.
Writing in Slate in 2020, Sophie Hagney claimed, “Museums have a docent problem.” The problem? Docents “skew toward a certain demographic. As one museum education employee who has worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art said, ‘It’s not totally this, but mostly, it’s an army of privileged old white women.’” Hagney quoted approvingly a museum studies professor from the University of Florida who complained, “Docents are one of the most vital resources for museums, but the current model literally has inequality and exclusions baked into it,” tut-tutting the “economic privilege inherent to committing to free labor in service of an institution.” She wants museums to fire all the volunteers and commit to “hiring more people of color.”
Efforts to make museums adhere to more stringent DEI policies have prompted the hiring of many such “racial literacy consultants” who have introduced debunked ideas such as “implicit bias training” for volunteers. As one such consultant, Porchia Moore, told Slate, “I would argue that the notion and structure of racial equity and historical thinking are concepts that need to be taught from the earliest age possible” and that “there is no better place to do this than the museum.”
In other words, booting the white docents is only one phase of a much more radical program for museums. Moore, for example, wants to see “a whole structural reimagination of museums that goes well beyond volunteers.” As she told Slate, “We need to use this time to think about wage equity, hierarchy of the boards, and the systemic and institutional racism in museums.”
In the meantime, who will lead the tours of rowdy schoolchildren? Who will answer questions about the latest temporary exhibit or offer hours of unpaid labor to the public solely because of their commitment to giving back to their communities through art?
No one. Cultural institutions like the AIC would rather deny the public—including schoolchildren, many of them from inner-city Chicago—the experience of knowledgeable, enthusiastic guides than appear not woke enough. Indeed, institutions like the AIC are now so woke that the mere existence of a voluntary labor force of white women is seen as an affront.
From the glorification of the Karen meme to New York Times opinion columnists who glibly refer to white women as “instruments of terror” to books like Kyla Schuller’s The Trouble with White Women, the identity politics left is happy to make sweeping claims about the supposed evils of white women while remaining hyper-vigilant about the tiniest possible microaggression that might have been inflicted on a non-white person. Criticism of white women has become a popular cottage industry.
A few years ago, the Washington Post Magazine wrote a gushing profile of Rachel Cargle, praising her “brand,” which is apparently non-stop criticism of white women packaged as “intersectionality,” with a dash of Instagram. “I refuse to listen to white women cry,” Cargle states. She also writes essays with titles like “White Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels,” all while earning money as an “influencer” posting sponsored Instagram posts for fashion brands. “Look at them: These are your heroes,” Cargle said in a “mocking, babyish voice” at one of her lectures while showing slides of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The self-styled anti-racist gurus claim to be prompting racial reckonings. Instead, they are stoking animosity.
In the case of the Art Institute of Chicago, they are also punishing their own patrons. Visitors to the museum, including the many public-school children who annually traipse through its halls on field trips, will pay the price of the museum’s embrace of anti-racist policies. Fewer tours led by less knowledgeable guides will be deemed progress, so long as those pesky white women are no longer present in too high a number. It’s telling that museum administrators made no genuine effort to thank these women for their decades of service (Stein said she would give them complimentary two-year membership to the museum). Why should they? They are privileged, after all.
The irony is that it is precisely those many years of service that demonstrate how keenly the white docents already recognized their own privilege—so much so that they felt obligated to give their time and energy for free as a way of giving back to their communities. Anti-racist ideologues would punish that impulse and call it progress.