Chicago’s Art Institute fired its volunteer docents and caused a furor heard nationwide. The fight is really about the future of musuems

·18 min read

CHICAGO — About 90 years ago, just after New Year’s, in the dark of the Great Depression, the Chicago Board of Education began rooting through its proposed $93 million budget, eager to trim $7 million. It was looking for what it called “frills.” Instances of glaring, unnecessary excess. And soon they found one, a frill in the guise of a single museum docent, whom the city had employed for years to provide Chicago schoolchildren with tours of the Art Institute of Chicago. Unlike most contemporary docents, who serve as volunteers, this one, Mary Buehr, had a salary; firing her, the city saved just $3,000 a year (or $60,000 in 2021). Still, fire her, they must: “This is the most ridiculous item I have found in the entire budget,” board President Lewis Myers told this newspaper.

And that was that.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

A few days later, a letter arrived at the Tribune, a lengthy letter to the editor, decrying the treatment of Chicago’s only official art docent. See, the school board had fired the wrong docent. They did not know who they had messed with. Buehr, in her 60s, was no kindly old art dowager. She was a beloved teacher and acclaimed artist herself who had solo exhibitions in Paris; she was also married to Karl Buehr, a renowned impressionist and beloved instructor at the School of the Art Institute who had started at the museum as a night watchman. She had history. Like other docents, often the welcoming, public faces of monolithic institutions, Mary Buehr had led many school groups, and the letter noted: “As a result of (those) tours, literally thousands of letters of appreciation for this art service are received by Chicago’s docent from pupils rich and poor and teachers and .…”

Sound familiar?

That echo you hear — of dismissals, cries of unfairness, letters to the editor — that’s the sound of a similar and more persistent blowup at the Art Institute nearly a century later.

In September, the museum informed its 80-plus docents — some of whom had been volunteering there for decades — that it was suspending their 60-year-old program and rebooting it with an eye on remaking the docent corps as more reflective of a multicultural Chicago. Unless docents reapplied to a new program in the future, they were no longer part of their program. And some had responded as if it were their program. They put in the time, acquired the art knowledge, gave the tours. They made the program a staple.

You heard about this.

Probably, you moved on.

Museum professionals, and docents, have not. Not even a little. That’s true in Chicago, and that’s true at museums across the country, where docent programs are mostly paused because of the pandemic. Many say, when they do return, the ramifications of what happened at the Art Institute will play out for years. Depending who’s talking, it’s about diversity, gratitude or merely the future of museums. Buehr’s dismissal was definitely different: It was about money and misogyny. Art docents were historically white women of means; many early docents had influential husbands who sat on museum boards and found them work in the museums as something for them to do.

But in Buehr’s 1932 dismissal, we hear sounds of 2021, echoes of influence, privilege, expertise, the passion of docents, their well-placed connections, their impact. Also misogyny and money. We can imagine a fairly white group of museum docents in the 1930s. The thing is, it stayed that way, and it remains that way now. By the 1950s, Buehr was a lecturer at the museum. By 1961, the docent program at the Art Institute was formalized, becoming something of an institution within an institution.

Now that history is running headlong into another history — one of exclusion.

This is not the simple story you’ve been hearing, of white people shoved aside in the name of equity, and rich women finding themselves forced to change. This is more expansive, with repercussions reaching far beyond museum volunteers. Often, the museum professionals and docents who spoke for this story laid blame all around. Many applauded the goal of the Art Institute, then added quickly: They also should not have summarily dismissed the docents. Many spoke of the importance of change and the importance of retaining knowledge. Nina Sánchez, co-director of Enrich Chicago — which works with institutions (including the Art Institute) to remove racist policies — said, “There is no set of instructions for this, there is no road map. If only it were so easy.”

The Art Institute is not even unique. Similar stories played out in Arizona, Alabama, Washington, D.C. As museums in large cities attempt to reflect the demographics of those cities, don’t expect the Case of the Dismissed Museum Docents to fade away.

Said Dietrich Klevorn, who had been an Art Institute docent since 2012, one of two Black docents: “I fully understand historically how the docent corps looks as it does. I also understand a little of what is going on is you have the kind of people who would probably appreciate a handwritten letter of thanks for years of work. While on the other hand, a museum run by people who just send an email. I think a little of that is in this.”

Said James Rondeau, president and director of the Art Institute: This is “no critique on the past,” and that the museum “never messaged any sense of a rationale driven by the demographics of volunteers.” He called the change “evolutionary, centered on the needs of students.”

You hear two sides talking past each other, obliquely.

One so invested and well-meaning they can appear blind to the inevitable changes around them. The other relating to its free labor in the coldest of corporate jargon and art-speak. You hear both sides sounding naive when identity politics have come up. Indeed, headlines on right-wing websites soon claimed the museum was discriminating against white people; anonymous stickers slapped to lamp posts in the Loop shouted exactly that. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune said the museum found its docents were “wanting as a demographic.”

The problem, said Porchia Moore, head of the museum studies department at the University of Florida and a longtime consultant on questions of race and cultural competence, is there are more than two sides. “This is a multifaceted subject being reduced to race, when in fact, it’s about what a museum should be in the 21st century.”

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It’s hard to pinpoint when guides were first called “docents,” but historians note the title gained traction at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts around 1900. Historically, being a docent required understanding a museum’s holdings and providing footing to its visitors; school groups became the bread and butter. None of which has changed much. Except docents then were often paid museum staff. Not unlike today, they arrived as museums were redefining themselves.

“Museums then were considering what it means to be public-oriented and who that public should be,” said Nathaniel Prottas, associate editor of the Journal of Museum Education and director of education at the Wien Museum, the city museum of Vienna. “Museums were moving out of the Victorian era, so the big debate was if they were for artists or art lovers? Was it about aesthetics or information?”

As docents became common in museums, women found those jobs “partly because of misogynistic views that linked education and children to women,” Prottas said, “but also the work of women was valued less and art education deemed dispensable. Museums didn’t have the budgets for these roles, so they needed people who could work for free.”

Hence, the first docent pools came out of community groups, Junior Leagues and progressive settlement-house organizations, which tended to overlap with social circles frequented by wealthy white women — who in turn recruited new docents from those circles. These groups, which often included wealthy donors to cultural institutions, dug into their roles. Indeed, by 1952 — the same year the Art Institute established the Woman’s Board that now runs its docent program — Vogue featured a photo spread of influential Art Institute benefactors.

Not that all docent programs are alike, even now: Befitting the more cutting-edge works on its walls, the docent pool at the Museum of Contemporary Art tends to skew somewhat younger. The 350 active docents at the Chicago Architecture Center — including Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, and WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer — are a bit more equally divided between men and women.

Still, docents in Chicago cultural institutions tend to be white, older and professional. Less than 10% of Architecture Center docents are people of color, said President Lynn Osmond, who added the organization is not recruiting new docents early next year so it can rework requirements and create a docent pool more reflective of the city’s demographics. Retirees, for instance, also are disproportionally represented among docents. At the Oriental Institute at University of Chicago, there’s a docent (who gave tours as recent as 2019) who was part of the museum’s first docent class in 1966. At the Field Museum — which has 193 docents — a few have been active more than 40 years. According to the letter that Art Institute docents sent the museum in reply to its plans for them, the average docent there has been leading tours for at least 15 years.

In fact, for 30 years, that history has been butting heads nationwide with the growth and influence of generally younger professional staffs of museum education departments.

So, these days, museums are confronting questions about a reliance on free labor, questions about the makeup of their boards, questions about the diversity of the art, questions about the legacies of colonialism that at times provided that art. “Docents are a very visible symptom of the larger changes already happening at museums,” said Ryan Hill, who has managed docent programs at several institutions, including the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, which ended its docent program in 2014, replacing docents with university art students who gave tours for course credit. The Art Institute, which boasts a $1 billion-plus endowment (when combined with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), laid off more than 70 staff last year and now faces (like many other museums) an intense push to unionize the staff. Docents were “just lowest hanging fruit,” said Caroline Goldthorpe, director of museum studies at Northwestern University.

But when the Art Institute docents were informed of their future, docents everywhere shuddered. “I had so many calling, just to talk,” said Sue Geshwender, who leads 70 docents at the Oriental Institute. “It was like they had all felt a disturbance in the Force.”

Madelyn Mayberry, president of the National Docents Symposium Council, organized a webinar titled “The Evolving Docent,” because “there were so many concerns all over.”

According to Rondeau, docents had been told changes were coming and “an evolution” had been discussed with them for years — which is partly why new docents have not been admitted since 2012. He said that within “the volunteer space there is a great deal of gratitude and generosity but not necessarily the same degree of accountability” that paid museum professionals might offer. The museum now plans to replace its traditional program with a combination of “part-time, paid educators” and unpaid volunteers; in a letter to docents in September, Veronica Stein, executive director of learning and public engagement for the Woman’s Board, wrote that the program will be rebuilt “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.”

But according to Gigi Vaffis, the docent council president at the museum, volunteers had been suggesting many of those changes for years. She said they asked the museum about diversifying its docent ranks, bringing in educators trained for specific exhibits, partnering with Chicago schoolchildren on the content of museum tours, shifting training to nights and weekends to create a broader docent corps. “From my perspective, we offered ideas, but for a long time, there wasn’t a capacity (from the museum) to act.” She just never thought dismantling the program itself was an option.

So, alas — shouts, hollers.

Soon enough, Emil Ferris, an acclaimed Evanston-based graphic novelist, tweeted how meaningful docents had been to her education. The online arts magazine Hyperallergic described the docent’s response as “the work of a group that expects to operate with autonomy by virtue of donating its labor.” Those were two of the thoughtful responses.

Meanwhile, lost in the accusations against the docents and museum alike were those meant to benefit from the changes. “What strikes me about the way all of the institutions involved responded was the amount of attention given to the impact on docents and nobody else,” said Nina Sánchez of Enrich. “It gives credence to divisive rhetoric, and at some point we just need an honest conversation about who we’re really preferencing.”

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Jenny Woods is president of the American Association for Museum Volunteers and former assistant manager of the volunteer program at the Seattle Art Museum. She said the AAMV has not made a formal statement about the Art Institute docents, but like Sánchez, she does wonder about who is not being respected here. “Saving a program to avoid hurt feelings will not serve anyone. I don’t want to sound like I am disrespecting any volunteers — they have been my career — but this is a two-way street. Still, I do see the disconnect. Many (docents) spend so much time working for free, they can feel an ownership. When a big change comes along, you get this natural tension.”

Indeed, good docent programs are often compared with graduate-level art programs.

Tom O’Keefe taught English for 38 years at Homewood-Flossmoor High School and became an Art Institute docent in 2008; he’s now retired and lives in Winnetka. To become a docent, he took a couple of years of art history classes with the museum, followed by classes to translate that history into lessons. “(Within) the second year, you start with a mentor on the tours.” Which then require a couple of hours each week. “It’s time-consuming, but you love it if you see yourself as a lifelong learner. Knowing every part of a museum means knowing about histories of religions, histories of countries. (The museum) was also good at keeping us abreast of new ideas and theories on art.”

“I can’t tell you how many times my husband has said, ‘Wait, explain to me again. You’re not getting paid for any of this?’” said Dietrich Klevorn. “Meanwhile I nod yes and sit there surrounded by the five art books I’m reading that cost $300 of my own money.”

That said, those critical of docent programs like to note a codependency can develop between volunteers and museums, particularly when docents are also donors. Ryan Hill, who worked with Hirshhorn volunteers, said docents there had connections with local media that “allowed them to amplify” their outrage at changes. But once the museum brought in students and professional educators for tours, “over time the balance changed.” Elsewhere in recent years, museums in Atlanta and Minneapolis have tweaked its programs to draw in a mix of communities. For the past eight years, docents at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago have been paid and partly drawn from a program that offers humanities courses to low-income adults. At the Milwaukee Art Museum — which has experimented with weekend and online access to docent training, to attract more volunteers — there was a paid docent program for formerly incarcerated men; it ended when grant money ran out, said Brigid Globensky, senior director of education and programs, “but it showed me a broad community who would like to docent if those resources were there.”

Klevorn, who also was a docent at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, said the MCA, more centered on temporary exhibits than the Art Institute, required less time of docents and “therefore you would see younger people, a different mix racially” in its docent corps.

Many docent programs, for at least the past decade or so, had already shifted from lecture-based tours to more conversational, inquiry-based ways of explaining art. That includes the Art Institute. O’Keefe said that he knew from decades of teaching high school, “lecturers always become pariahs among students.” At the Field Museum, 81 of its docents now roll large red carts stocked with objects for visitors to interact with; that program is led by Aimee Davis, who previously taught improvisation at Second City.

Still, change in the museum world is often slow, said consultant Porchia Moore, who notes countless instances of cultural insensitivity among docents, often explained away. She noted an international museum conference in 2019 that tried to update the definition of “museum,” affording for work ethics, cultural climate, a multiplicity of voices.

That concept was so divisive, the conference opted against voting on a definition.

But the ideas remain.

Ask museum professionals about the Art Institute controversy and, along with issues of diversity and privilege, ageism comes up as well as a concern about deep-pocketed cultural institutions still using free labor in 2021. Goldthorpe at Northwestern doubts that phasing in part-time paid docents (especially if they don’t receive health care benefits) solves much. In fact, at University of Illinois at Chicago, the department of museum and exhibition studies is planning to remove a requirement that students complete a museum internship because those positions often provide only college credit, which favors students who can afford to work for free. Therese Quinn, director of the department, sees the docent issue as “symptomatic” of general mistreatment and low pay at museums. “There’s a massive concentration of wealth at the top. It’s clear (the Art Institute) doesn’t have its priorities right. I doubt they could have seen a better result.”

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James Rondeau also doesn’t want his museum “dependent on free labor,” he said. He understands an institution with the reach and influence of the Art Institute can’t operate the way it has for generations. He wants to focus on the future — though talking with him, it’s not always clear what that future resembles. Partly this is because of business jargon that he gravitates toward — new staff are not hired, they’re “onboarded,” and so forth — and partly because that future is still being mapped. But there are clues. Docents will not be responsible for knowing everything within the museum; specialization will become more common. There will also be more of an emphasis on teaching itself, more emphasis on the “civic wellness” of the visiting public, with more “intersections” between the museum’s “community partners” and the volunteers.

He said “museums like ours were often regarded as impenetrable temples of culture, closed off and only for the few.” He imagines an Art Institute more like a “dynamic social platform,” offering “virtual spaces,” and not only a study of objects but “of experiences.”

Which is in line with museum professionals who believe places like the Art Institute will evolve like libraries, into community spaces, shaking off histories full of somber gravitas, soaked in prestige and exclusion. In fact, after the docent shake-up, the Art Institute found itself with some unlikely supporters, the kind of progressive groups that tend to criticize museums like the Art Institute for moving too slowly. Like the Minnesota Alliance of Volunteer Advancement, whose executive director, Karmit Bulman, a Chicagoan who spent her childhood at the museum, said “dismantling race inequity requires boldness.”

She applauds the museum and says a tipping point has been reached: To stay relevant, a cornerstone cultural institution needs to more closely resemble its community in 2021.

Not that this means cultural organizations will pay everyone now. Jeanne Schultz Angel, president of the Illinois Association of Museums, said “without the volunteer piece, many smaller museums and community historical societies would be unsustainable.” Lynn Osmond said the Architecture Center “could not financially do it” if they paid volunteers.

As for the former docents of the Art Institute of Chicago?

Gigi Vaffis still hopes to be reinstated; she said that conversations have evolved between Art Institute docents and the museum in the past few months “to a more positive place.” Others are not so sure where this is going. Joy Daskal had been at the Art Institute for 21 years (and 23 at the MCA). She liked the direction the docent program was moving. “It was no longer top down. It was ‘This is your place. You tell me what you want out of this.’ Which was a huge difference” from when she started. She said she knew things were changing and paid docents were probable. She was even co-chair of the docent’s diversity committee; she cringed at how the docents became a right-wing cause célèbre. She said she’s been asked to sit on a new advisory council tasked with shaping the future of its volunteer educator program. (Five former docents have already joined the council.)

She plans to return to the fold. “But then, I’m not sure how it will look now, and I’m guessing, truly, no one else at the museum does, either.”

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