What Chicago has destroyed by firing its volunteers

What Chicago has destroyed by firing its volunteers


norman lebrecht

October 20, 2021

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.

Lauren Arnold
Montain View, California



  • Joe Tucker says:

    Nice to hear from Lauren Arnold!
    Disbanding the docent program is shortsighted and not the direction to take in this scenario. Reach out and include the disenfranchised but don’t punish the volunteers.

  • MacroV says:

    Yeah, I really don’t get this. By all means, diversity the docents, but don’t toss out expertise.

  • Cuckly Cuckington says:

    This is truly a shame. My wife and I would be happy to console any of these wronged volunteers.

  • J Barcelo says:

    er, that would be “Mountain View, CA”.

  • Paul Barte says:

    Brava, Lauren Arnold.

  • Monsoon says:

    This person really isn’t doing the docents any favors by publishing this letter in the WSJ.

  • David Drasin says:

    A very touching memory. We moved to the Chicago area in 1966, and in those days all the city museums were free. Today I think we only have that (in general) in DC, thanks to the federal government. A schoolkid today will not have the same authority to wander into the Art institute today. A real loss.

  • Lisa Thibodeau says:

    So sad… why did they do this… rich white women are probably the only ones who can financially spend all this unpaid time learning this stuff and teaching it, if you have a full time job and have to commute -ain’t happening… What a slap in the face to women in general.

    • Monsoon says:

      That’s exactly why they disbanded the program. By making these positions unpaid, it limits them to affluent people, which skews the economic and racial representation of employees at the Art Institute. You shouldn’t have to be independently wealthy to work in the arts.

      The AI can afford to make these paid positions, which is long overdue.

      The former volunteers should be invited to apply for the jobs and given some kind of preferential treatment, but AI did the right thing here.

      • Carl Jung says:

        Monsoon…you obviously have a screw loose…defending this most obvious and racially motivated move – makes you the biggest racist of the year…congratulations!!! If these women weren’t white – this would have never happened…again congrats on being a racial bigot…

    • Curvy Honk Glove says:

      These rich white women probably voted for tRump since that’s what their husbands told them to do (didn’t Hilary say something about that?). Good riddance to the lot of them. I bet they’re unvaxxed too.

      • Westfan says:

        As a white woman of a certain age, “comfortable” but not what I would call rich, I volunteer with other people, mostly women, of the same demographic. Not in Chicago but in other cities where I have lived. I can assure you there are and were few or no Trump voters among my volunteer crew. Most Trumpites don’t volunteer at all, too selfish. And they they don’t “have the time” to train or commit to a regular volunteer schedule, they are too busy jetting off on vacations and shopping jaunts. It’s just too much like work for them. They will go to fancy fundraising events and luncheons but a regular volunteer gig? Not a chance.

      • Alexander T says:

        Beyond asinine.

      • Max Raimi says:

        “Probably”. In other words, “I don’t need no stinkin data!” Actually, you are probably wrong. A majority of college educated white women voted for Biden in 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/2b0eba6f-ba33-42e6-b49a-f7e53d67341f

  • Aleph says:

    Lauren Arnold undermines her own argument so much, it’s laughable.

    So she acknowledges that of her entire class full of minority kids, she was the ONLY one who paid attention to and was touched by the white lady docent, something the docent herself recognized.

    Doesn’t her own description of the experience of the other 99% of her classmates support the sacking of white lady docents?


    (Plus she doesn’t deny that perhaps a minority docent could have had an equal or greater impact on little Lauren.)

    • D** says:

      I’m reminded of an experience from my years teaching music in a large city.
      The local major symphony orchestra once came to our school to present a concert to 6th through 8th grade classes. About 98% of the students were African-American.

      Although the majority of musicians were white, the conductor (the orchestra’s assistant) was African American. The selections were short, giving him the opportunity to speak to the students frequently.

      I’d attended many educational concerts, and I’d observed conductors from all backgrounds who were quite successful reaching young diverse audiences. When this conductor and his orchestra arrived, I assumed he’d smile, warmly greet the audience, and find a way to connect with everyone.

      The opposite happened. He looked uncomfortable from the moment he arrived, and had no rapport with the audience. At the end of each selection, he demanded silence, and constantly threatened to have the orchestra pack up and leave.

      Yes, student behavior that afternoon could have been better. At the same time, the conductor should have been better prepared for the situation. The fact that he and the majority of his audience were both African American made absolutely no difference.

      About a year later, a small ensemble of all white musicians from that orchestra came to perform at the same school. This group seemed to be better prepared. They weren’t completely successful connecting with the audience, but they really tried. The atmosphere wasn’t as tense, and the group’s leader smiled frequently. There were no threats, and the performance ended with a lot of positive feelings.

      There’s no doubt that it’s nice to have guides, performers, conductors, etc. from diverse backgrounds. The fact remains, however, that putting a non-white individual in one of these positions is not a guarantee of success.

      I’ve often seen non-whites in positions of authority who connect very well and are revered by whites who are under them. I’ve also seen whites in similar positions who are held in high esteem by diverse teams they are leading.

      It isn’t politically correct to say this, but many of the common narratives we’re hearing today about race and diversity are not totally accurate.