Art Institute of Chicago ends a faculty program and creates a backlash


Like many museums across the country, the Art Institute of Chicago has sought closer ties with the racially and economically diverse city it serves. Museum officials ruled that one area in need of an overhaul was the 60-year-old program of volunteer educators known as faculty members who greet school groups and provide tours.

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Like many museums across the country, the Art Institute of Chicago has sought closer ties with the racially and economically diverse city it serves. Museum officials ruled that one area in need of an overhaul was the 60-year-old program of volunteer educators known as faculty members who greet school groups and provide tours.

For example, last month the board overseeing the program sent a letter to the museum’s 82 active faculty – most of whom were white, elderly women – informing the volunteers that their program was ending. The letter said the museum will gradually introduce a new model that relies on paid educators and volunteers “in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, rather than financial flexibility required for participation ”. . “

The move has broken out into the newest cultural hot spot as museums across the country struggle to make their staff, boards, and programs more diverse.

The lecturers – long-term, committed volunteers who know the institute and its collections well – complained about the decision. The Chicago Tribune condemned the move in an editorial titled “It’s a shame about the Art Institute that it just popped up its volunteer professors.” Conservative media condemned the scheme as discriminating against whites and as an example of what The Federalist called “the cult of wakefulness.” Infowars, a site founded by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, published an article about it.

James Rondeau, the institute’s director, said in an interview that the faculty program had long been viewed as unsustainable from a logistical point of view and that the institute stopped accepting new volunteers 12 years ago. He said the recent vitriol took a heavy toll on the institution and its staff.

“We were obviously not prepared for this to become an identity-political discussion,” he said. “We only focus on our mission.”

In the September 3 letter that ended the program, Veronica Stein, director of learning and public engagement for the museum’s women’s committee, which supports educational activities, said the museum wanted to “build our program from scratch”.

The new plan is to hire paid educators – Stein invited the volunteers to apply for these positions – and then develop a new program over the next several years. In 2023, she wrote, “Unpaid Volunteer Instructors will be reintroduced via a redesigned model” that includes updated “Recruitment, Application, Training and Assessment” protocols. She offered the outgoing lecturers museum membership.

Stein said in an interview that she was surprised by the sharply negative reactions. “The violent, enticing language that overwhelming numbers of people use in letters and emails to describe the museum’s development has been startling and, if I’m honest, scary,” she said. “As a result, the museum has now increased security. Our frontline workers have experienced erratic and harmful behavior. Our goal now is to bring the facts to light and protect our employees. “

A number of museums have tried to get more colored people into the recruitment pipeline, in part by removing financial barriers. Organizations such as the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement encourage nonprofit and governmental organizations to “engage volunteers who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities they serve.” And there have been widespread calls for wage reforms as systems that rely on unpaid volunteers and interns tend to favor those who can afford to work for little to nothing.

The question of the diversification and training of lecturers has arisen several times in recent years. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has made a public commitment to “change protocols and procedures for frontline personnel and guards, articulate our expectations for the behavior of visitors, staff and volunteers, and improve ongoing training for all staff and volunteers,” according to Seventh graders and a teacher said they were exposed to racist comments from staff and other visitors during a 2019 field trip. And a 2020 Slate article titled “Museums Have A Faculty Problem” described what he described as “the struggle to train a predominantly white, unpaid tour guide corps to talk about race.”

Lecturers at institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston are all volunteers. “For many years we have worked in concert to attract a diverse corps of faculty,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Houston museum, “and we look forward to further diversifying our staff and volunteers.”

At the Met, 400 of the museum’s 1,000 volunteers are faculty members whose program “will evolve,” said Daniel Weiss, President and CEO. “All institutions must ensure that their programs and policies are in line with their values ​​and respond to current needs.”

The Faculty Council of the Art Institute of Chicago has asked the museum to reconsider its decision and consider alternatives.

“We agree that top down the museum must better reflect the Chicago area community it serves,” the council wrote in a letter to Rondeau last month. “We also believe that our knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment can help achieve our common goal – that of the museum and ours – to make the museum a more welcome place for everyone.”

The Chicago Tribune editorial described the dismissal of the lecturers as “a callous step in a cruel time in America” ​​and urged Rondeau to “apologize and find a compromise that does not include the spectacle of longtime fans of a great museum.” to have the feeling of having been thrown out with the rubbish bin. “

Robert Levy, chairman of the Art Institute, responded by defending the decision in the Tribune, writing that officials were taking “thoughtful and measured steps” to pursue “a new national model of art education.”

He wrote that “the decision of many in our community to view this as an indictment of their own identities,” “was misaligned and disregarded the driving force behind the program: to better serve students and visitors to the Chicago area and to have lifelong relationships with them.” To cultivate art. ”

But the controversy has barely abated. “In the name of what they call bourgeois diversity, the museum has thrown overboard a group of people who actually see it as their duty to help the public understand art,” said an essay in the Wall Street Journal . “That’s not very bourgeois, is it?”

Stein said the museum was simply trying to rebuild the program and complained that the museum’s motivations and plans were misrepresented. “We can lose focus on the amazing opportunity we have to pay educators,” she said, “especially when we live in a society where this is not the standard.”

An advisory board that will guide the museum through the process will include faculty, she added.

Gigi Vaffis, president of the faculty council, said she and her colleagues were “surprised, disappointed and dismayed” by Stein’s letter.

“Regardless of our age, regardless of our gender, regardless of our income, we know the Art Institute’s collection very well and are very well trained to promote artistic commitment to a diverse audience,” said Vaffis, who has been a Volunteer works for years. “Our goal is to enable tour conversations that are as dynamic as the audience we serve.

“We have such value, knowledge, experience and passion – I wish the museum had recognized what we are bringing in. I wish they would reconsider and bring us back. “

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