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Emmy Griffin / October 20, 2021

Woke Quotas Sacrificing Western Culture

Chicago’s Art Institute is firing docents because they’re predominately older white women.

Chicago’s Art Institute is a world-famous museum. Its collection includes pieces from across the centuries and around the globe. My favorite exhibits are the miniature rooms and the impressionist paintings including “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat (his art students helped with all the tiny dots that make up the painting). Want to know how I know this? Because many years ago, a docent — who freely gave her time — told me all about it on a school trip to the museum.

It’s a shame, then, that the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) recently fired 82 of its docents. These docents are highly specialized volunteers who act as guides and greeters. They were not paid for this loving service. Why were they fired? Because most of them (not all) are older white women of means. The fact that they live comfortably is important because this financial independence allows them to give their time without pay and without needing taxpayer dimes.

The AIC docent program has been around since the 1960s and was a brainchild of the Women’s Board and the Junior League of Chicago. These docents really perform a labor of love. As enumerated in their letter protesting their firing, they “engaged in eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent, five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas, and monthly and bi-weekly trainings to further educate ourselves with the materials, processes and cultural context” of the museum’s collections. The devotion of these volunteers knows no bounds. The average years of service they gave to the museum was 15 years. Yet the museum threw them out like trash. Furthermore, as a “thank you” for their years of service, the docents got a two-year free pass to the museum. Whoop-dee-doo.

This change has apparently been in the works for 12 years. Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC, explained that they wanted to provide the museum with a smaller, younger, more diverse staff that’s also paid. This is insulting in and of itself because it implies that if you’re diverse, you can’t possibly desire to be a docent unless you’re paid. This, of course, isn’t true. One of the former docents, Dietrich Klevorn, is black and owns an art gallery in Chicago, though she admits the rest of the docents are “not a demographically representative population.”

This unpopular firing by the museum brass was even blasted by the Chicago Tribune, which dubbed it “shameful” and “weaselly.”

There are two galling issues at play here. First, there’s the blatant ageism and stark racism. These volunteers did have some diversity in their ranks. Some were males, some were from less affluent backgrounds, and some were even people of color. How old you are and the color of your skin should never be a factor in deciding whether or not to keep an employee (or in this case a volunteer). The ability and willingness to do a good job, however, should. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., every human should “not be judged by the color of their skin [or wrinkles on their face] but by the content of their character.”

The second — and just as crucial — issue is the blithe dismissal of passionate educators and dedicated intellectuals. My heart aches for the wealth of knowledge that was years in the making that’s now lost. Hiring docents to meet a diversity quota is a sacrifice of excellence. What’s even worse is, now that the AIC has gotten rid of the docents, visitors to the museum will primarily be getting guided tours through automated headsets or on their app, not by an actual person. Visitors learn so much more by interacting with informed, volunteer docents who don’t view the role as a job but as a service.

This is yet another example of mediocrity in the form of equity. One must ask: If we continue to trivialize the importance of keeping Western culture through its art, where does that leave us as a society?

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