Is the Chicago Volunteer “Firing”So Different from the COVID Firings? Maybe Not.

Gualdim G – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In case you missed it, last week the Art Institute of Chicago “fired” its docents, effectively ending its 60-year old volunteer program. Its intent was to swap its public-facing volunteer staff, replacing them with paid and volunteer BIPOC museum educators. Not surprisingly, the folks with time to volunteer tend to be white women of a certain class. Thus, the 82 remaining volunteers received a letter saying a new model was in the offing where paid educators and volunteers would work together “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.” The result was a kerfuffle at numerous levels. Museum thought leaders spoke out. There were Facebook posts, and a days-long discussion on AAM’s Museum Junction. And that was before conservative media–including The Federalist–got wind of what was going on, turning an internal communication from the Institute to its volunteers, into a firestorm of reverse racism. The NY Times quoted Institute Director James Rondeau saying, “Clearly we were not prepared for this to become a discussion of identity politics,” he said. “We are only focused on our mission.”

The Art Institute isn’t the first museum, nor will it be the last, to diversify its volunteers and front-line staff to better reflect its community, and that’s a good thing. Privileged White people talking about art, inventions or living spaces created, made and owned by other privileged White people may be less than meaningful if you’re not White and privileged yourself, and even that’s not insurance against boredom. Instead, it’s not the decision itself that troubles me, but rather the way the Art Institute handled its staff.

What do I mean? Maybe it’s instructive to think about Spring 2020. Remember when the world shut down? We were barely going out or rather we were going out, but only to be outside, breathing air without COVID droplets away from other humans. The rest of the time we worked from home or we didn’t work at all because many, many front-facing museum folk were let go. Boards, museum presidents and directors will tell you staff were dismissed because with no visitation, they couldn’t be kept on the payroll. Remember how many of us deplored the way staff were treated? As if they didn’t matter, as if they hadn’t given a great deal to whichever museum or heritage organization was summarily letting them go. As if at the very moment the world was in crisis, it seemed like a great idea to fire folks via email.

Now forget which side of the Chicago Art Institute debate you’re on–forget for just a moment how important it is to have community based education staffs teaching in their own communities–and ask yourself whether a museum should fire anyone by letter or email much less 82 longtime volunteers? Is that a museum you want to work for? What does transparency mean if it doesn’t mean having the courage to talk to staff face-to-face? When your fellow front line staffers and educators were let go ostensibly because of COVID, the pandemic was an excuse for not talking to staff in person. Can the Art Institute not do a socially distanced meeting? We all say we want organizations that are humane and transparent? Shouldn’t that extend to volunteers?

What would have happened if the Art Institute had brought its volunteers together for a meeting and discussed the changes they want to make? What if they’d offered them the opportunity to partner with BIPOC staff and new volunteers? Would that have been challenging? Yes. Would some volunteers still felt unwanted? Probably. But if those alliances worked, imagine how dynamic they might be. Imagine a White volunteer of a certain age and a Black community teacher speaking to middle schoolers about a painting. Imagine them each engaging students, and treating each other with kindness and respect. In its best iteration, it might be like the verbal version of Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman vs. The Blue Boy After all, isn’t really seeing and talking with someone you don’t know the first step toward empathy and caring? Isn’t that what 21st-century museums need? Isn’t that how systemic change begins or is that just too naive and Pollyanna-ish?

Change is really, really hard, but it needs to be equitable. And, at an organizational level, museums need to stand behind the change they make by being willing to talk things through with staff, whether volunteer or paid. We all want museums to evolve, but successful DEI work isn’t just replacing white volunteers with BIPOC staff. An organization needs to understand its own DNA, acknowledge its faults, and move forward through collaboration. In this case, part of its self-reflection might be helping its longstanding volunteers understand how they–perhaps unwittingly–helped put it in a place that needs changing.

I want to be very clear here: I’m not objecting to the Chicago Art Institute seeking a new model. Docent tours hark back to an age of sage-on-a-stage, of museums that are all-wise, all knowing, and too frequently imperious. This particular docent program is sixty years old and undoubtedly needs disrupting. What I’m objecting to is the way it was done because it echoed the way big museums treat their front line workers. Museums need change. They need staff who reflect their communities in imaginative, smart ways. But they also need staff who feel safe, seen and supported. An organization that can “fire” 82 volunteers by letter can also fire 82 staffers. Systemic change might mean museums working toward changing organizational culture, creating models where staff –volunteer or paid–work together with empathy and respect.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin

8 Comments on “Is the Chicago Volunteer “Firing”So Different from the COVID Firings? Maybe Not.”

  1. Stephanie Stephen says:

    DEI initiatives address the erasure of the perspectives of non-white people. Suggesting that DEI initiatives are there as ” insurance against boredom” deeply misses the point.

    • Except that’s not what I was suggesting at all. In fact, the complete opposite. What I wrote was privileged white folks speaking about privileged white folks was probably only interesting to privileged white folks, and even for them, meaning more privileged White folks, may prove monumentally boring. I hope my point was that we need as many viewpoints as possible engaging museum audiences.
      J. Baldwin

      • Stephanie Stephen says:

        I understood your point about white folks speaking about white folks being boring.

        But boredom is NOT the issue.

        BIPOC audiences don’t just want to hear other BIPOC voices because they are “bored” of hearing about privileged white folks. They want to hear BIPOC voices so that they aren’t erased from the culture of the museum.

        Its not just about keeping audiences interested – which is important – its about acknowledging BIPOC communities as being integral to the museum’s work.

      • Fair enough. It was a snarky comment, and it’s true that boring isn’t the problem,. The real issue is changing the dialog. So apologies because the real point of this piece wasn’t any new and presumably better interpretation the museum initiates. The larger point was the way the museum treated its staff, whether paid or not.

    • Stephanie Stephen says:

      I agree that staff were poorly treated and I also would not want to work somewhere that get fires their staff while hiding behind email. That’s terribly unkind, and you are quite correct to bring it up. Thanks for hearing me out.

  2. Fannie Canpbell says:

    I have a couple of questions. First, is it fair to say the AIC “fired” it’s docents to “replace them with BIPOC educators”? I’m not sure that’s exactly what was said. Paid educators are not necessarily all BIPOC, and this framing makes it seem like racial identity is the key hiring criteria, when I don’t think that’s it at all. Second, do you know for sure that this was only done “by email?” From all the AIC has said, discussions have been going on for more than 10 years. Many staff were also fired by email. I don’t recall that making the national headlines in the mainstream press in anything near this amplitude.

    You may have more information than has been publicly shared, but it does seem worth fact-checking these two things.

    • Carolin Collins says:

      I wanted to say this same thing. In the letter to the docents, they were invited to apply for the paid positions once those positions were put into place, and that they would also be bringing back volunteers in some capacity. I certainly think it is fair to say that the museum wants to increase the number of BIPOC educators, but not that it is looking for a wholesale swap. The imagined scenario of white and black educators working together seems, to me, one of the types of situations the museum is hoping to make possible.

  3. […] second spot is last week’s post Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon? followed by, Is the Chicago Firing So Different from the COVID Firings? and On Labor Day, Taking the Museum World’s Work […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s