Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Art Institute of Chicago Fires its Volunteer Docents

The Art Institute of Chicago just fired all 122 of its volunteer docents, who acted as guides to the Museum's collections.

Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families. Their average length of service: 15 years. 

So they just tossed more than a thousand years of experience in working at their museum. And why? Well, the triggering factor here was the museum's quest for diversity. The volunteers were mostly older white women from backgrounds I think it is fair to call "privileged." The museum tried for years to recruit a more diverse group of docents, but they never succeeded. The museum found an almost all white, female, and over 60 workforce to be a bad look, so they are replacing the volunteers with professional guides who will be paid a starting wage of $25/hour.

The stories I have seen all picture this as part of a fashionable drive for racial diversity, but really this is a deeper problem. Art Museums worry a lot about their fan base, because it is mostly white, educated and older, and they really want to draw in more young people not from stereotypically museum-going groups. It may well be that this is doomed, and that they would do better to double down on the people already attracted to museums, but anyway that is not the route they are taking. 

Also, organizations that rely on volunteers can become captive to them. In a lot of places, what the volunteers want, they get. They are difficult for management to control, since, after all, you're not paying them. If you depend on volunteers to stay open, what happens if you want to make changes that piss your volunteers off? Maybe you can't afford to. And if your volunteers are older and very much attached to the way they have been doing things, does that limit how much you can change? I'm not saying, mind you, that this is always a problem, but sometimes it has been.

I know something about this because it is a major issue for my biggest client, the National Park Service. They use a lot of volunteers for many different tasks, but public interpretation is only occasionally one of them. They moved away from that practice because of concerns about who those volunteers are and what they might be saying. Consider what sort of person would volunteer to be a guide on a Civil War battlefield in the South. You can give them a script and train them on sensitivity, but you can't control what they will say in response to an unexpected question. 

The public face you show to visitors matters. They will, generally, be best at relating to and drawing in people like them. They may resist change in how they work. (Which might not always be a bad thing, since the NPS is as vulnerable to fads as other bureaucracies, but anyway the NPS wants to have control of its message.)

And then there is the question of privilege. Having the time to volunteer, especially at a place like the Art Institute of Chicago or the National Park Service that requires a lot of training, really is a privilege. Most of the candidates will be retired people with college educations. From the perspective of a young person who wants to work in museums or parks, the competition from all those retired folks who can afford to work for free is a real issue. I think that as a general rule institutions that can afford to pay people should.

But of course there is also another side; if you are comfortably retired, want to remain active, and know things worth sharing, what are you supposed to do? I just wrote that if you volunteer you may be taking jobs away from young people who need them, but if you stay in your old job because you can't see anything meaningful to do in retirement, aren't you just competing with young people in another way? The question of how retired people can keep meaningful lives is also an important one, every bit as vital as the ones faced by 25-year-olds that I write about so much.

If you want to get mad about this as more woke anti-racism, fine; that's the angle taken by Jerry Coyne, from whom I learned about this. But I see it as a piece of a much bigger question about volunteers vs. professionals, and what that means both for the institutions and for the people who do the work. 

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