As many museums throughout the United States, Chicago’s Art Institute of Chicago has pledged in this year’s budget to prioritize diversity and equity.

But the latest of these efforts – a decision to dismantle its decades-old docent program, letting go over 100 of its volunteers – has launched the museum into the national spotlight and resulted in backlash from conservative media and frustrated docents.

Docent programs have long been mainstays of major museums where trained volunteers guide visitors through a museum’s collection. But museum equity consultants say the programs are outdated, have too many barriers to entry and, as a result, often skew toward a certain demographic: Wealthy, white women. 

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The controversy around the art institute’s decision has reignited debate about docent programs and equity as consultants, museum staff, docents and Chicago residents clash over the way forward: Whether to edit the existing program or to dismantle and rebuild.

“Sometimes equity requires taking bold steps and actions,” said Monica Williams, executive producer of The Equity Project, a Colorado-based consulting firm whose clients include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. “You really have to dismantle and disrupt the systems that have been designed to hold some up and others out.” 

Art Institute facing backlash over dismantling its docent program

On Sept. 3, Veronica Stein, the museum’s executive director of learning and public engagement, emailed the museum’s more than 100 docents telling them the program’s current iteration would be coming to an end.

Stein told the Wall Street Journal that the museum must move “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 AIC did not provide a copy of the Sept. 3 email to USA TODAY but said the pause is part of a “multi-year transition” to a “hybrid model that incorporates paid and volunteer educators.” 

This decision sparked a storm on social media from conservative media. The Chicago Tribune decried the move in an editorial titled “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents” and suggested the museum instead recruit new, diverse docents.

Meanwhile, the institute’s docent council sent a letter Sept. 13 protesting the pause of the program. The letter described the docents’ expertise, adding that they had trained twice a week for 18 months, done five years of research and writing, and participated in monthly and biweekly trainings.

“For more than 60 years, volunteer docents enthusiastically have devoted countless hours and personal resources to facilitate audience engagement in knowledgeable, relevant, and sensitive ways,” the letter said.

Gigi Vaffis, president of the AIC’s docent council, told USA TODAY that she and other docents felt blindsided by the decision and weren’t included in the decision-making. Even now, she said there are few details about what the AIC’s multi-year plan will look like.

“We had no idea,” said Vaffis, who has been a docent for almost two decades. “We were very surprised. I was honestly a little gobsmacked.”

Experts believe that docent programs are laced with inequities

As museums confront how to better educate the public of the art on their walls and reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, museum equity consultants have long advocated for transitioning volunteer positions to paid. 

Williams of the Equity Project said that the shift will open up opportunities for those who can’t afford to work weekdays, or have done a substantial amount unpaid. If docent programs switch to paid positions, she said it will help museums move away from “a particular demographic of mostly white and wealthy.”

“Docent programs have perpetuated whiteness in these spaces,” Williams said. “It’s part of the problem.”

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As a result, Williams said she respects the AIC’s decision, saying more diversity among people who work in museums will strengthen the quality of art education. 

“The stories that are told are based on a docents’ experience or expertise, which oftentimes comes from a white space and are not reflective of everyone’s experience,” she said. “So we need to really critically think about how stories get told and who tells them.”

Mike Murawski, a museum consultant and author of “Museums as Agents of Change,” said there has long been a tension between equity efforts and volunteer programs.

The Art Institute of Chicago is widely regarded as one of the top museums in the world.

He said that there were often differences in the experiences and perspectives of those who are leading the groups in their efforts to educate the community. Programs like these are what I believe contributed to the institutional racism and colonialism of museums.

When the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum ended its docent program in 2014 in favor of an initiative for younger volunteers who often work for college credit, Murawski said there was an uproar with many saying the museum might as well close. But he stated that they are doing fine now. They’re doing great.

Murawski expressed his satisfaction with the AIC’s decision. They’ll be very happy that these changes were made five years later, Murawski said.

‘We need to elevate Black, brown and Indigenous voices’

Vaffis stated that the volunteer corps has some diversity, although she acknowledged there could be more. She didn’t have the demographic breakdown offhand; racial, gender and income level demographics are not readily available to the public.

The docent council, however, stated that there were “other ways forward” in a letter it sent to the museum.

“We would like to build on what we currently have so that we don’t lose the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge but that we add to it,” Vaffis told USA TODAY. 

Vaffis is keen to have docents in the museum again as quickly as possible, and to see paid educators added to the docent corps. This will help the museum move towards hybrid models. 

Additionally, she suggested that docents be recruited from more diverse communities to co-facilitate tours alongside community members. She suggested that the program could be extended to allow people working during the day to still take part in evening tours.

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She said, “Our view is there’s another way so we don’t have to miss out on two more years of public art education.”

Museum consultants agree that sometimes, the best way to move forward isn’t about changing programs.

Murawski stated that docent programs can often be stuck in a “long-standing tradition of what things should look like” which makes it difficult for them to change. 

That risks continuing “elements of white dominant culture, colonialism and racism that are systemic within museums,” he added. 

His comments were that “there are just too many legacy structures, barriers embedded into a docent programme to start with that it requires more editing to fix.” These programs need to be rethought and rebuilt from scratch.

Williams said that the first step in rethinking docent programmes is not enough. More changes are needed, including in hiring practices, diversity on museum boards, and equitable pay for artists.

Williams stated that “we have to make adjustments that are difficult for people.” “We need to elevate Black, brown and Indigenous voices without people misunderstanding that it’s at the expense of white voices”

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.


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