As an art critic, I frequently attend press previews (or I did, pre-pandemic), which grant journalist/critics the privilege of touring museum exhibitions with highly knowledgeable curators as guides. As such, my reaction was complicated regarding the current controversy over whether to eliminate the use of volunteer docents as tour guides for the average visitor. (The links are to articles in the Wall Street Journal and NY Times.)
My gut reaction was sympathetic to a CultureGrrl reader who tried to enlist me on the side of the docents. Here’s what she wrote to me:
I hope you are following this story. As a former volunteer (not a docent) at the Art Institute of Chicago many years ago, I personally have seen the work done by these docents. Granted, there needs to be diversity among the group, but does that justify firing the whole group of highly trained, well qualified and loyal volunteers? That’s what’s happening at the AIC. And is this happening in other museums without anyone noticing?
In years past, I was a docent at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago and a guide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I put in all the hours of training and preparation, so I know what they describe is real. These volunteers do not deserve to be treated like this. There has to be a better path to true diversity. I’d love to know what you think.
Notwithstanding the press reports linked above, Kati Murphy, executive director of public affairs for the Art Institute, insisted that it was inaccurate to state that its 122 docents had been “fired”:
We paused the program while we transition to a hybrid model that pairs paid educators and volunteers, as we recognized the need to update our approach and structure for student learning in our galleries. Concrete action planning for this began in April 2019, when we shared the initial vision for the new program. Volunteer educator leadership was part of these conversations and had been supportive of the new direction.
The museum has 15 professional educators on staff who are well equipped to give student tours, and without the task of administering the volunteer educator program, these educators can spend a vastly higher ratio of their time teaching in the galleries. Additionally, we are in the process of hiring five additional educators to supplement our current talent, and as school tour demand increases, we will bring in additional paid educators and institute a new hybrid model that will include volunteer talent once again, likely in 2023.
The Wall Street Journal opinion piece linked at the top of this post (by Faith Bottum, an intern at the newspaper) suggested that the controversy revolved around class, race and ageism, stating that “the apparent problem was that the Art Institute docents were mostly older white women of above-average financial means and with plenty of time on their hands.”
Ouch! That’s my friends you’re talking about (a few of whom are retirees-turned-docents). My instinctive bias was to leap to the defense of my peers. The only problem is: I’ve overheard a lot of these amateur tours during my lifetime of peregrinations through museum galleries. Some docents seem reasonably knowledgeable; others make me wince at their mistakes and mispronunciations. Professionalizing the proceedings is an idea whose time may have come.
I suppose that a rigorous training program, with close oversight of the results, might adequately address the problem. Here’s what the Metropolitan Museum says about its own “Guided Tour Volunteers” program. (It eschews the “D” word.):
We are currently accepting applications for new volunteers who we train to lead tours for school or adult groups on weekdays at The Met Fifth Avenue or The Met Cloisters. Candidates of all backgrounds and abilities are welcome. No prior training in art history is required. Training is conducted by the Museum’s educators, curators, librarians, and scientists, who present the latest scholarship, as well as the accumulated knowledge of The Met’s deep history. Training sessions include lectures by curators, discussions, workshops, written assignments, and oral presentations. Training for new guides joining in 2021–22 may include both virtual and in-person sessions. [Emphasis added.]
We can only hope museums that use volunteer guides have the time and ability to rigorously train and vet them, making sure they’re up to the task of educating, not discombobulating.
Even in these contentious times, who could have anticipated the intensity of “negative reactions” described by Veronica Stein, who was named in March as the Art Institute’s new Woman’s Board Executive Director for Learning and Public Engagement?
Here’s what Stein told the NY Times‘ Robin Pogrebin:
The violent, weaponizing language an overwhelming number of people are using in letters and emails to describe the museum’s evolution has been startling, and if I’m being honest, scary. As a result, the museum now has increased security. Our frontline staff have already experienced erratic and harmful behavior. Our goal now is getting the facts out and keeping our staff safe.
I know that we’ve become a fiercely contentious society. But I always assumed that art was a civilizing force. Is someone going to get so physically violent over the right to expound on art that he or she might have to cop a plea over a Copley? Have we come to this?
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