Chicago fires its white volunteers

Chicago fires its white volunteers


norman lebrecht

October 11, 2021

Another tale of our times:

The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), one of the world’s top art museums, had 122 volunteer ‘docents’.

They served as guides to the museum’s 300,000 works. They have two weekly training sessions for 18 months, and ‘five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas’. Most of the docents are middle-class retired women, generally white. Fifteen years is their average term of service.

Last month, the Art Institute sacked the lot. The reason? They are insufficiently diverse.

They will be replaced by paid (=low-paid), poorly trained minority personnel.

Here’s a shaming editorial from the Trib:

A weaselly letter was sent out Sept. 3 by Veronica Stein, the Woman’s Board executive director of learning and engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago. The recipients were the museum’s 150 or so volunteer docents, a beloved mainstay of the venerable cultural institution for decades and the main providers of fine, learned tours to Chicagoans, tourists, students from Chicago Public Schools and myriad other visitors to our great museum.

Once you cut through the blather, the letter basically said the museum had looked critically at its corps of docents, a group dominated by mostly (but not entirely) white, retired women with some time to spare, and found them wanting as a demographic.

No matter that the docents had typically trained for years, if not decades, on how to describe the Art Institute’s collection, or worked hard on adjusting to the trendy new ways (”Art and Activism”) of describing the work to be found there, or put in hour after hour in academic study of their fields.

Thus the museum had decided to can the whole lot of them, replacing the group with a small number of paid educators working longer hours.

Don’t forget to pick up your things, it said, among other pleasantries. Feel free to meet on your own, it allowed, although we won’t be able to support you. And would you like a free membership? Initially, the museum even put an expiration date on that, before backing down after the docents expressed their deep sadness at such shabby treatment after all their years of service…..

Frankly, the museum would certainly have had a tough lawsuit on its hands for age and race discrimination (there were laws against that, last time we checked) were it not for one thing: Everyone being nixed was a volunteer. And, as at least one docent found out after contacting the AARP, volunteers are not covered by federal employment laws. We’ll wager museum lawyers had pointed that out.

Read on here.



  • Michael James says:

    Good to know the ‘inclusion’ bit of the woke agenda is being observed so rigorously.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Signs of our times. White, middle class, educated people not required.

  • Alviano says:

    Throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  • Tamino says:

    One has to being able to afford this. But we can‘t. A society with an intellectual and spiritual death wish. Interesting in its social psychology. Horrifying to witness.
    Total decadence.

  • Althea T-H says:

    Where does it say in the linked article, Mr Lebrecht – that the new personnel will be either poorly-trained, or poorly-paid? The article does not explain when the new personnel began their training; nor what their remuneration will be.

    It’s not good to make assumptions.

    It’s the facts that matter.

    • True North says:

      Not here, they don’t.

    • Max Raimi says:

      In a different article, I read that they will be paid $20 an hour, which isn’t exactly minimum wage. It is actually a better-than-average part-time job for a college kid.
      It still seems like a pretty shabby exercise, though.

  • Aleph says:

    Have you ever had to suffer through a tour given by a smarmy, white middle-aged art-history-major-manquée wife-who-lunches docent? My God, one is barely bearable, a whole museum filled with them is inhumane torture.

    • Ainslie says:

      Nobody’s forcing you to have a docent-led tour, you ninny. On the occasion that I want a docent-led tour, I want someone who is well-trained and knowledgeable in the subject. Even if she is (horrors!) a white middle-aged art-history-major etc. etc. wherever she choosed to lunch.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I always found a museum anyway an inhumane torture. It’s mostly an old pretentious building full of things you have to admire even if you can’t see the point. On top of that guides who are a drag in themselves, and the resulting inferiority feelings you get for hearing things for the first time nonstop, it’s undermining your confidence. Sometimes I have to visit one to check something, as part of my job description, but God it’s awful to step into that morbid space.


    • Will says:

      You, like the Chicago management, are a vicious racist.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    I’ve been on some terrific docent-led tours at many museums, including the AIC. Eliminating this program is a serious misstep (all about “diversity, equity, and inclusion”) and I hope other museums don’t do the same thing.

  • The View from America says:

    I wonder what Chicago mayor Lori Lightweight’s take is on the matter …

  • V. Lind says:

    An absolute disgrace. Any smart, principled minorities stepping up to comment on this nonsense?

    Volunteerism not a big thing in minority communities?

    There ought to be at least a qualification standard for docents. Sounds as if the incoming team could not even define the word.

    • Aleph says:

      Just listen to you, “any smart, principled minorities…”

      I dunno, you know “any smart, principled whites”? or are they such a rare breed you have to go asking if there are any?

      You are exactly what a white middle-aged docent sound like.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I’m a smart principled minority member minus one thing, being white everywhere. I would not want such job not even for big money! Unless it pays more than I get here of course.


      • V. Lind says:

        My point was that the criticism of this move, which is clearly based on an agenda meant to forward the cause of “diversity,” seems to be coming from people of the now-excluded kind. It would be interesting to know if members of minority communities, which will benefit from these purges, see any injustice here.

      • christopher storey says:

        The racial prejudice clearly shown by people like Aleph has no place on this board. Please do something about it, NL

    • Karma says:

      Oh my ‘V. Lind’,

      You people (white liberals) are so…articulate.
      [insert garish, nasal laugh]

      In no time the white liberal will have virtue signaled themselves right out of academia. Whatever shall they do?!?!?


      • Anthony Sayer says:

        @Karma: More to the point, what will academia do?

      • V. Lind says:

        I may be misreading your intention in your attempt at being funny — although I always think that people who have to resort to internet letters to signal their amusingness are somewhat deficient in that regard — but you are certainly misreading mine.

        Just to make it plain to you: I oppose the removal of these volunteers so that this museum can “diversify.” They apparently plan to replace volunteers with minority paid personnel. No word about training or qualifications. I am simply challenging minorities to address the injustice of this.

  • Monsoon says:

    Firing all of the docents is obviously extreme and is only going to cause them PR problems, but the explanation for why they did this touches on a real problem in the arts:

    “As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program 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. Rather than refresh our current program, systems, and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up.”

    Having worked in arts administration at one of the largest and richest organizations in the U.S., the non-management positions are ridiculously underpaid, and the organizations heavily rely on unpaid internships. Between the low pay and the fact that these organizations are in high-cost of living cities, many of the employees depend on financial support from their parents, and as a result, almost all of these employees are from affluent families — you can’t take these jobs unless you have parents who can help you pay the rent. The posture of organizations is that it’s a privilege to work for a prestigious arts organization — you should be paying them. Ok, fine, but then they shouldn’t act surprised when their staff is almost entirely white. And putting aside the racial dimension, something isn’t quite right these organizations receive tax-exempt status from the U.S. government, have endowments larger than many universities, and are paying non-entry level positions in cities like NYC and LA only $40k.

    The breaking point for me was at my organization, its season was coming in under budget. It didn’t want funders to think that the cost of a season was less expensive to produce than it really was because then they’d be inclined to give less in future years. So in the final month of the fiscal year, they threw extravagant parties to burn cash. Meanwhile, the organization had about 100 unpaid interns that it absolutely depended on who worked 9 to 5 jobs. Some people suggested that they be paid instead of spending the money on parties; that was shot down. And to add insult to injury, they were very transparent with the interns that these parties were about burning cash to deceive funders — leadership was patting themselves on the back for coming up with what they thought was a clever solution to the “problem” of being too cost effective.

    • Vincent Freeman says:

      Amen! Someone had to say this. Thank you for the honest assessment.

    • SVM says:

      As I said in my comment (further down), it is entirely reasonable to move to having paid docents. But the existing volunteers should be considered for these paid positions and shortlisted for interview automatically (assuming they are capable in relation to the job description for the paid positions). Then, the final selection should be based on merit (in order not to shut-out highly capable docents who did not volunteer at the institution). In the same way that, if Monsoon’s former employer had decided to advertise paid positions equivalent to the roles occupied by the “100 unpaid interns”, Monsoon would want said interns to be considered for those paid positions automatically (I am assuming Monsoon would feel that way, but do correct me if I am mistaken in that assumption)…

  • Sidelius says:

    This sounds eerily similar to the recent outrage involving the English Traveling Opera Company you have covered. Once again, it defies all norms of reason and decency. In any sort of sane situation, the stated goal of “diversity” could be achieved without losing anyone in the process, simply by proactively recruiting older and retired minority candidates to add to the existing staff. Since they are unpaid, it would cost little to do so. In an area with the huge population of Chicagoland, it is hard to believe there aren’t at least a few dozen such folks to be found. They would just have to make the effort. Meanwhile, existing staff should be cherished, not treated like trash. The handling of this by Veronica Stein and crew is incomprehensible and absurd. It is an enormous injustice to the museum, and it seems it’s time for THEM to be swept out. I’ve been there, it’s an incredible place. What a shame.

  • SVM says:

    Moving from having volunteers to having paid staff in a particular role is a perfectly reasonable change, if the volunteers are considered for the paid positions. Assuming that the volunteers are capable, qualified, and experienced, they should be invited to apply for the paid positions through a fast-track process (i.e.: they should not to have to fill in most of the tedious paperwork associated with a job application), with every longstanding volunteer to be shortlisted for interview as a matter of entitlement.

    • The View from America says:

      … but that would be terribly “unwoke” … unless it’s simply going-through-the-motions window-dressing, with no intention of actually hiring any of them.

    • Monsoon says:

      Exactly. This is really an issue about wealthy arts organizations taking advantage of the tax code to have volunteer employees perform essential tasks.

      AIC typically has $300+ million, exceeding expenses by upwards of $50+ million.

      They can easily afford to have all paid staff.

  • J Barcelo says:

    You would think that the people who run the museum would have a better understanding of the concert of “institutional history”. That’s what these long-term docents have and what the new hires won’t. Chicago, like many other Democrat run cities, is quickly destroying its cultural legacy while making the city a dangerous, unattractive place to visit, much less live. I know a lot of people on this site despise Trump and anyone who supports him; but it’s things like this that gives rise to more Trumpism.

    • Grouchy says:

      Veronica Stein has zero qualifications for her position at the AIC. Zero. Probably one of the Board members gave AIC a grant to hire her, to pander to The diversity crowd. She is a racist, who wants to hire poor minorities from the ghetto to replace all those offensive affluent white women who are so offensive with their white skin. Shame on the Board members.

    • Violinophile says:

      One instance does not a trend make. Culture is doing pretty well in Los Angeles-whose last Republican mayor hardly anyone remembers. Good things happening in many Democratic cities. Chicago has been a troubled city for a long time. Plenty of Republican led cities, in the south for example, have more than their share of troubles. Covid is running wild in many southern Republican states, for one thing. These cities are not squeaky clean and poverty and crime-free either. Republican mayors and governors, however, are far less likely to do much to help improve the situation. Most Democrats are not in the woke fringe, but most Republicans seem happy to follow Trump straight into tyranny, and swallow all of his lies.

      • K says:

        Yes, swallowing is exactly the image that comes to mind while the traitors – AKA republican governors, senators and house members – perform fealty to the great orange one. It’s been rumored that he is especially fond of the members.

  • Simon says:

    But wait, don’t they now have to remove all artwork created by white people? Can’t wait to tour the new collection of graffiti.

  • Dragonetti says:

    Watch out National Trust volunteers in the UK!

  • sad for them says:

    I’ll just add one thing… Everyone else has articulated the insanity of this. Let’s look at the human cost. My mom is of a certain age and means to both donate and volunteer. Her volunteer job was a cost of Corona. She misses it. As i suspect the same from the docent staff at the art institute…i mean to add insult to injury, just when they could comfortably come back …they’re sacked! Let me tell you, biting the hand that feeds you is never a great strategic move- particularly from any Arts Org that of All times needs help- and moreover taking away from the kind and volunteering retirees is simply cruel. it gave them a purpose and something to look forward to. a schedule. and having been on tours there, the enthusiasm of them to share was palpable…

  • Curvy Honk Glove says:

    Who cares? As members of the well-to-do majority, I betcha’ they voted for tRump anyway.

  • ffs says:

    God forbid museums start making efforts to hire people and pay them a living wage for their work.

    • Ellie says:

      Absolutely! Surely the thing to read into this is that they are VALUING their workforce.
      As someone who managed 120 volunteers and 30 FOH staff at a museum I completely get the difficulty here.
      Those volunteers are very knowledgeable, highly trained, do a wonderful job. But they are all older middle class white women. It’s not healthy to have a homogenous group so dominant – it becomes the face of the organisation, and we can’t attract different audiences without reflecting that in our staff and volunteers. And getting different kinds of volunteer is really difficult – because you need time and to be able to afford to give yourself without renumeration, and – for us – access to a car. So it ruled out so, so many people who would do the role if it was paid.

      There is also the unwritten acknowledgement that volunteers can be really knowledgeable, give years and years of life – but you still can’t hold them as accountable as a paid member of staff. They will do things they shouldn’t, say things in ways they shouldn’t, and not do things they don’t want to do that you really need doing. And it takes so much more to manage this than staff who are obligated in a different way.

      So, if you can afford staff – for god sake pay people!

      I started life in museums as a volunteer and I wouldn’t be where I am without it. I needed to volunteer – I had little confidence and the opportunity to do just a few hours a week and gain experience was just what I needed. And they have their place, they do. But roles that have high expectations of the commitment and knowledge should pay.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    The long term sociological implications for such actions are poor, as this is precisely how well behaved, middle aged housewives gradually become Monty Python’s “Hell’s Grannies”.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Some of these grannies form hell come at the door here to complain about comments on SD. They are frightening indeed.

  • Danny Kaye says:

    Totally disgusting. I just moved to Chicago and I promise I will never step foot in your doors.

    • Concerned opera buff says:

      Danny, I hope you will change your mind, as the AIC has some of the most famous art in the world, most of it donated by rich people for the benefit of all the people in Chicago. It’s not like Black folk are forbidden to enter the doors. Lots of school kids go on tours. But let’s face it, unless people are interested in some of the really great touring exhibits (Monet, Chinese stone statues, treasures from India), you might not realize what a great place this is, for all people. It is a shame that the docents are being fired. I really appreciated them. But I won’t stop going there. You have to hope, that when AIC realizes it made a mistake, that they might reinstate the docents.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:


  • PFmus says:

    While the main issue seems to be one of age, and secondarily gender, Norman has chosen to seize on ‘generally white’ rather than mostly female, and mostly retired. It seems a transparent attempt to try to foment a racial issue instead. This is just another low stage in the divise-clickbait deterioration of this blog, which by the way now has very little to do with classical music I fear.

    • Hayne says:

      Maybe you haven’t noticed the racism and anti culture that is infecting almost all of music and the arts now.
      Norman has.

  • Robert says:

    Betcha 90% of the volunteers are Democrats. BTW. NOTrenewing our membership. Not diverse enough. Revolution’s a comin’.

  • Judy says:

    The museum is overlooking its history in this matter. The collection was primarily created by white upper and middle class donors and staff. If minority group members don’t come to the museum enough, maybe it’s because they feel no “ownership” and connection to the works in the collection. Work at it from that angle and more minority group members will finally join the ranks of volunteers. Beauty and meaning remain unchanged, but sometimes people need to come at art through their own doorway.

  • Vera Hoffman says:

    People should earn any job or position according to their knowledge and education, not anything else, but those were the good old days, now we are afraid to voice an opinion.

  • Eva Gengler says:

    So, once again, in the liberal manner, educated, knowledgeable, competent people are being replaced because they are the wrong color.

    Please call Veronica Stein and let her know how racist she is. I no longer wish to visit if the only response to my questions is a dazed and confused look. Hire the BEST person for your organization or company no matter what color they are.

  • Nancy Kula says:

    Every year for over 30 years I took 54 students from out of state for the “Annual Art Institute Field Trip”. After fundraising for months, we traveled 8 hours round trip by bus for a life-changing experience. For the most part, the student demographic was poor, white rural kids. It was a thrilling trip for all, as around 90% had never been to Chicago. After hours of filling our eyes, we would eat our sack lunches and then walk down Michigan Avenue to see our first skyscrapers and wander into The Watertower Place. We would then meet at the Contemporary Museum and view their collection and later catch our bus right outside their museum shop. Eyes were big as we left at dusk and we looked at all the lights from the downtown as we left for the farm fields of Iowa.

    Where were we from? Anamosa, Iowa, the birthplace of Grant Wood, painter of America Gothic, a beloved painting at the AIC.

    One of my fantasies upon retiring after teaching for 38 years was to become a docent at the AIC. Can’t do that now. I’m a white woman.

  • brenda johnston says:

    I have visited the museum three times while on various trips. I think this is racial profiling and as a white person it feels discriminatory. Chicago is a strange city in many ways. So cultured, yet so unrefined. A facade of safeness , and yet rampant shootings. Seems fitting that gangsters roamed here. A mayor who is a racist and insults reporters unless they are of color. Guess what ,the museums works are of mostly white famous re known artists that often hailed from Europe. So is it really all that strange that white docents would be the guardians and preservers of this art history? It is a mostly white history to be shared with entrants of all ages and colors in current times. It is the visitors who already make this a diverse museum.