The Art Institute of Chicago is a world-class grand art museum. It has a magnificent collection of over 300,000 works of art. The museum sits on the shore of Lake Michigan in some buildings dating back to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America.
For years, eighty-two volunteer docents made regular trips downtown to share their love of art with the public. A docent is a trained volunteer guide whose expertise turns a quick museum visit into a meaningful experience.
Each docent receives 18 months of training, followed by regular meetings to keep updated. In addition, they spent countless hours with visitors and school groups, explaining the museum’s art collections.
In return, they enjoy the appreciation of those who shared their commitment to the museum and experience the joy of imparting knowledge.
On average, the docents logged fifteen years of service.
A Sudden Termination
That service ended on September 3, 2021, when each received a memorandum from Veronica Stein, the museum’s “Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement.”
First, the memo thanked them for their service and outlined the museum’s value to the community. The ax fell in the third paragraph.
“Over the last year, we have had the opportunity to evaluate our volunteer educator program. As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program 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. Rather than refresh our current program, systems, and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up. This means the program’s current iteration will come to an end.”
Put simply, the bureaucrat fired the docents.
She continued.“The museum aims to build a responsive, sustainable, and inclusive program that integrates the goals outlined in our strategic plan: to honor and embrace our civic role by investing in Chicago-area learners, educators, and creatives and to reinvigorate in-gallery learning programs to promote accessibility, equitable teaching approaches, and greater inclusion of visitors’ cultures.”
In the Name of “Diversity” and “Equity”
Despite the cumbersome flow of words, Veronica Stein’s reason can be summed up in two words she used—“equitable” and “inclusion.” She omitted using the word “diversity,” which is uncommon when it comes to leftist monologues.
By definition, the docents were people who could afford to volunteer their time out of love of the arts. Unsurprisingly, most were upper-middle-class women supported by their husbands’ ample incomes. Most were also white.
On September 13, the docents’ organization responded in a letter to Institute President James Rondeau. It adopted a conciliatory tone.
“We believe the Department of Learning and Public Engagement and the now-former volunteer docent corps share a common goal: to create a meaningful and welcoming experience at the Art Institute of Chicago for students, visitors, donors, and members of all backgrounds.
From this paragraph flowed over 1500 words describing the many ways that the docents helped the museum fulfill its cultural mission.
The docents even tried employing “woke” language themselves. “It is our hope that these comments be taken as constructive, so that accessibility to art, and arts education among all museum volunteers, staff, donors, AIC members, students, and guests be equitable and inclusive.”
Friends Become Foes
The story unfolded slowly because most docents honored the museum’s request to refrain from public comment. However, as all such things do, the real story eventually emerges.
On September 30, the Art Institute’s board chairman, Robert M. Levy, defended the firing in The Chicago Tribune. The op-ed’s title conveyed the spirit behind this ridiculous act. “The Art Institute – and its Critics – Must Embrace Change.”
Once the docents were essential; now, they were critics.
Perhaps the docents should have seen the ax coming in Veronica Stein’s statement when she took the job on March 19, 2021.
“I am delighted that the Art Institute shares the priorities that have guided my work throughout my career: designing culturally responsive programming and anti-racist curricula, cultivating fully accessible spaces, and ensuring staff wellness and learning.”
“Anit-Racism” as Used by Liberals
According to the “anti-racist curricula” that Veronica Stein espouses, people like the docents are “cultural oppressors.” Moreover, these women are actual purveyors of cultural oppression—instructing the young in fine art’s predominantly Western and meritocratic world. They possess many characteristics listed in “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture,” published by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2020. Their freely offered labor proves that they display the “Messiah Complex” that anti-racists find in many white liberals.
Ironically, Veronica Stein’s Master of Arts degree came from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The docents she fired aided and abetted this African-American woman’s rise to a high-ranking position with a pre-eminent art museum.
It is equally ironic that the docents belong to a voting bloc that has become increasingly liberal. According to figures compiled by the Pew Research Center (and reported by NPR), 48 percent of white suburban, college-educated women voted primarily for Democrats in 1990, a number that rose to 60 percent by 2016. Many pundits credit them with President Biden’s slim victory in 2020.
In 2016, the political analysts at FiveThirtyEight explained the political activity of white suburban women. “Roughly speaking, a white voter will lean left if she is “more college than church” and will lean right if she is “more church than college.” Carrying the analysis further, they explained, “[B]oth college whites and church whites exist in ideologically pure bubbles, where like-minded friends uncritically reinforce each other’s beliefs.”
Most likely, the Art Institute’s docent program was one such “ideologically pure bubble.” Thanks to the “woke” Veronica Stein, that bubble just burst.
An Increasingly Thorny Dilemma
This dilemma is one that many arts organizations face. Once the darlings of the liberal world, museums, orchestras and similar bodies find themselves stretched to the political breaking point.
Since the sixties, the art establishment has tried to prove that they were in the vanguard of social revolution. Increasingly, they dismissed traditional concepts of beauty and embraced the vulgarities of “artists” like the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe. For many years they looked down upon the more conventional tastes of the more conventional and the religious.
In the modern world, “cutting edge” vulgarities are now commonplace. Avant-garde museums are no longer needed. Their one-time “friends” abandon these liberal bastions as representatives of the “Western culture” that the woke oppose.
The cultural Marxists that promote woke ideology do not care about art. They want to move toward an egalitarian society where there is no room for any excellence. They do not want to promote art appreciation but destroy beauty. The unity of cultural Marxism with Critical Race Theory makes sense because they both seek to create class struggle and destroy the social harmony that would exist in a genuinely Catholic society.
Photo Credit: © Anton Ivanov Photo – stock.adobe.com