What Chicago has destroyed by firing its volunteersNews
A letter in today’s Wall Street Journal about the scandalous sacking of the Arts Institute’s trained docents:
The foolish and shortsighted firing of volunteer docents at the Art Institute of Chicago will destroy decades of enlightened outreach to the public-school children of this major city. I know this because I owe my entire career as an art historian to the docents of the Art Institute of Chicago.
My parents never took us to art museums — “those are for rich people” — so my first introduction to Chicago’s art treasures was on a 7th-grade public-school field trip, when our rowdy busload of of racially diverse, working-class kids was met by a brave young docent who took us through the institute’s awe-inspiring galleries. I’ve never forgotten that day. It was akin to Harry Potter’s first visit to Hogwarts. We floated up the marble staircases gazing at the enormous paintings of Greek myths, and walked through galleries of Impressionist works beyond compare.
Our docent told us: “You live in Chicago, so this is your art. This building and everything in it belong to you. Like your library, you can come here anytime you want. All of this beauty belongs to you.” At the end of our tour, she got us onto our bus to the South Side and waved us a rueful goodbye. Her face showed that she already knew that not a single one of us had listened to her, that none of these kids really cared.
But she was wrong: My 12-year-old self was listening and her words set me on a path that shaped my professional life. I credit the docent program of the Art Institute of Chicago, with its highly educated women volunteers, for providing this invaluable outreach to city kids, who would never have known it without them.
True, the volunteers, like my unknown docent, were mostly white women of privilege, often graduates of the elite Seven Sisters colleges and recently married to wealthy professional men. But to me, that day, this volunteer was an intellectual wizard, pointing me toward a life beyond my childhood schooling in Chicago’s slums. She took us into one aspect of our civilizational past and made us heirs of the beauty of humanist culture.
Certainly the docent program should be updated to reflect current research and cultural sensitivities, but it would be a shame to cast aside the contribution of decades of women-led public outreach to Chicago’s school children.
Montain View, California