Art Institute of Chicago fires 150 to get rid of 'weathy white' on advice of Equity Project
The 150-year-old museum on Lake Michigan terminated its mostly elderly docents, who are well-versed on the exhibits
After hiring a consulting firm that advised it to get rid of the "wealthy White" guides and prioritize "equity and diversity", the Art Institute of Chicago ended up firing over 150 volunteers and suspending its decades-old docent program.
The 150-year-old museum on Lake Michigan terminated its mostly elderly docents, who are well-versed on the exhibits, via email on September 3, informing them that the cultural institute wanted to rebuild the "program from the ground up". The drastic change in the institute's outlook on things occurred after it hired The Equity Project, which is a Colorado-based consulting firm. The consulting firm found that the program at the museum was outdated and leaned towards wealthy White women, having a number of obstacles preventing people of color from entering the program. Some of the other museums that recently made headlines include BTS Museum, Louvre, the MET Museum, and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
What is the Equity Project?
The Equity Project came into existence as a result of Donald Trump winning the 2016 Presidential Election. The company bio reads, "Today, the Equity Project brings transformative work to organizations across the globe. Their expertise lies in creating spaces filled with grace for people to show up as they are, and developing actionable strategies to help organizations advance their equity efforts."
Equity Project executive producer Monica Williams defended the museum's decision to overhaul its age-old program. "Sometimes equity requires taking bold steps and actions," said Equity Project executive producer Monica Williams. "You really have to dismantle and disrupt the systems that have been designed to hold some up and others out." Art Institute Chairman Robert Levy also backed the decision made by the museum by penning an op-ed where he said that such a plan had been in place for the last 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.
About 30 percent of museum staff, which comes to about 186 workers, had demanded 'transparency' and 'racial equity' last year amid layoffs.
'Why not invest some time in recruiting new, diverse docents?'
The museum's docents were sent an email by Art Institute of Chicago Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein on September 3 telling them the program as they knew it was ending. The institute later told USA Today that it was an effort on their part to initiate a "multi-year transition" to a "hybrid model that incorporates paid and volunteer educators."
However, the museum's move irked a number of people, starting with the Chicago Tribune which criticized the move in an op-ed, suggesting that they could have instead hired more diverse docents. "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 op-ed read.
Other conservative media outlets have also expressed outrage on the museum's decision. Chicago columnist John Kass called the plan "Idiocracy". "What the Art Institute did to its docent volunteers — not all wealthy and White — was shameful indeed. They love art. They study art," he wrote. "And those of us who've been fortunate to visit the masterpieces there and listen to the docents don't think about docent demographics. Only racists think about skin. We think of their knowledge and passion and ability to communicate."
The decision to let the docents go also came as a complete shock to the president of what's known as the institute's 'Docent Council', Gigi Vaffis. "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." The docents responded with a letter of protest which stressed the fact that refilling the positions would require at least twice a week of training for 18 months, five years of research, and writing apart from further training. Vaffis said there have still been no indications of what the new plan from the Art Institute of Chicago will look like.