CHICAGO - The Art Institute of Chicago fired all of its trained volunteers and guides last month, who were mostly older white women, to diversify its team.
"We were surprised, we were disappointed," Gigi Vaffis, president of the docent council, said in an interview with radio station WBEZ of the firings. "There is an army of very highly skilled docents that are willing and ready and able to continue with arts education."
The Art Institute used to have more than 100 docents, 82 of whom were active, until an executive director of learning and engagement, Veronica Stein, sent an email on Sept. 3 firing them all, the Wall Street Journal reported. Docents are trained volunteers who lead tours of museums, and at the Art Institute, they averaged 15 years of unpaid service.
The firings were apparently sparked by the fact that most of the docent staff was composed of older white, financially well-off women, the outlet reported. Stein said that the museum needed to take a new path "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 fired docents were offered a two-year free pass to the museum as gratitude for their previous service.
The institute is one of America’s oldest and largest museums, with its docent program launching in 1961 as part of an initiative of the Woman’s Board and the Junior League of Chicago.
The docents sent a letter on Sept. 13 detailing the staff "engaged in eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent, five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas, and monthly and bi-weekly trainings to further educate ourselves with the materials, processes and cultural context" of the museum’s pieces.
"It was nearly a full-time job," Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012, 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 said. Klevorn was the only docent to speak on the record to WSJ, after the museum reportedly requested they not speak to the media. The institute told Fox News later Sunday that "the museum did not ask the docents not to speak to media," but that the docent council decided to decline further comment to the press.
The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board even hit back at the museum’s decision, calling Stein’s termination letter to the docents as "weaselly."
"Why not invest some time in recruiting new, diverse docents? Why not grow the corps in such a way that it’s refreshed? Why not help docents who need help with expenses or child care? Why not have a hybrid model, at least until the current docents exit?" the board wrote in its Sept. 27 opinion piece.
"Instead of trashing volunteerism as inherently elitist, why not avow and attest to its ongoing value as a vital part of necessary diversification and cultural change?"
Robert Levy, chairman of the Art Institute, defended the decision to fire the docents days later in his own op-ed, and said that the plan to do so had been in the works for 12 years.
"Critical self-reflection and participatory, recuperative action is required if we are to remain relevant to the changing audiences seeking connection to art," he wrote.
Klevorn, who is Black, conceded to WSJ that the docent staff was "not a demographically representative population." Vaffis, however, noted that the staff was a diverse group socioeconomically, and included a fireman and condo manager among the group.
"Still, the Art Institute hasn’t explained why they had to be jettisoned en masse and not diversified over time. The museum appears to be in the grips of a self-defeating overcorrection. It has adopted the language of diversity, inclusion and equity so completely that it was willing to fire the same upper-middle class volunteers it relies on for charitable donations," WSJ noted.
The Art Institute told Fox News in a comment on Sunday that they "have not fired anyone."
"We thought we were being very clear when outlining our plan, but somehow this has been twisted into unfounded accusations of reverse racism resulting in lewd threats against our staff. We’re simply pausing a volunteer educator program and would never want to diminish the contributions they have made. This should not be the roots of a culture war," a spokesperson for the institute said.