I have many fond memories of visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, an art lover’s heaven on earth. With 300,000 works of art, visitors can easily get lost inside AIC. However, thanks to their friendly and knowledgeable docents, I was able to quickly find my old favorites and discover new art and artists during each of my past visits.
I was shocked to learn that AIC fired all of its 82 docents last month because most of them are white. Corporate media largely neglected to report the story, probably because it doesn’t fit a particular woke narrative.
A Corps of Talented, Generous Volunteers
Here are some facts you should know about the docents. They’re unpaid volunteers: not just any volunteers, but highly skilled and well-trained volunteers. According to the docents’ committee letter to AIC President James Rondeau, each docent had to undergo “eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent.”
In addition, they had to have “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas, and monthly and bi-weekly training to further educate ourselves with the materials, processes, and cultural context of the AIC’s 300,000 works of art.” On average, each docent had 15 years of experience in “training, research, collaboration, and facilitating the highest-quality tours worthy of an AIC program.”
The AIC docent corps existed for six decades. They helped make every visit to this world-class institute a memorable experience. Besides offering highly informed and tailored tours to students and visitors, the docents did research projects, published papers, and organized lectures.
They also raised money to fund scholarships and art programs for students, and specifically reached out to “students with special access needs.” At the time they were terminated, the docent corps consisted of 82 active docents and 40 school group greeters.
In recent years, AIC and the docent corps have tried to recruit people of varied skin colors to become docents but apparently haven’t been successful enough for the institute’s leadership. The intense time commitment, the amount of knowledge and training required to do the job well, and the fact that this is an unpaid volunteer position, mean that being a docent is not suitable or desirable for everyone. Not surprisingly, many of AIC’s docents have been older white women who love art, have the time to be trained, and can afford to work for free.
Fired for Being Too White, Too Wealthy
When a group doesn’t reflect the exact racial percentages of nearby communities, the woke left sees a racial problem that must be stamped out immediately. Thus, in September, Veronica Stein, the executive director of learning and public engagement at AIC’s Women’s Board, fired all 82 docents and abruptly ended the 60-year-old docent program.
Had most docents been non-white, it’s easy to imagine that such mass firing would have received wall-to-wall coverage by corporate media and be set up as another example of institutional racism. Instead, social justice megaphones such as The New York Times and the Washington Post made no mention of it at all. The left does not see injustice when privileged white people are discriminated against.
Stein announced the 82 unpaid volunteer docents would be replaced with a “pool” of part-time employees who would earn $25 an hour. She claimed such a change would allow “community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate.”
Stein also announced “unpaid volunteer educators will be reintroduced” in 2023. To ensure “diversity and inclusion,” future docents will be selected through an “income equity-focused lens.” All these buzzwords really mean that skills and knowledge about art are not nearly as important to the institute as docents’ skin color.
For AIC, replacing unpaid and highly skilled docents with a group of paid part-timers not only doesn’t make financial sense but will also affect visitors’ experience. Since the AIC presumably doesn’t have enough staff to provide the breadth and depth of tours and services that the docent corps did for the last six decades, future visitors to AIC should be prepared for a mediocre experience.
Sniping Excellence In Education
This isn’t the only example of the left hailing mediocrity in the name of “diversity and inclusion,” nor is this trend limited to art museums. It may be most endemic in education, where New York’s soon-to-be ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced the city would phase out its gifted and talented program for elementary students and eliminate the test students used to take to qualify for the program.
De Blasio and his leftist allies argued that the highly selective gifted program worsened school segregation because white and Asian American students are overrepresented. That’s the same argument de Blasio used to justify his attempt to eliminate the admission test to the city’s elite high schools, when he blamed the admission test for the low enrollment of black and Hispanic students in these schools.
The New York City Independent Budget Office estimated that de Blasio’s proposal would cut qualified Asian American students’ enrollment at these specialized high schools by half. Although the proposal ultimately failed amidst fierce opposition from Asian Americans, de Blasio succeeded in getting rid of the gifted program at the city’s elementary schools.
“Achievement isn’t the problem with New York schools. Failure is,” commented The Wall Street Journal editorial board, noting “only 10% of New York City’s black eighth-graders are proficient in math, and 14% in reading.” During his two terms, de Blasio had done little to improve the education outcomes of black and Hispanic students he claims to support. Instead, as Karol Markowicz of The New York Post noted, de Blasio “destroyed the rare functioning component of the NYC school system” by ending the gifted program.
From firing well-trained museum volunteers to eliminating gifted programs, the cult of wokeness has shown that all it cares about is the optics of “diversity.” It is fine with sacrificing excellence to achieve ideological purity. Rather than inspire and motivate everyone to be the best they can be, the left brings people down, punishes efforts and talents, and prevents them from living to their full potential.
This mindset enforces mediocrity, which is the worst enemy of progress and prosperity. As Robert D. Kaplan warned, such a purge “ultimately leads toward a controlled society driven by the bland, the trivial and the mundane.” If we settle for mediocrity, America will be well on its way to self-imposed decline. In the end, the only equal outcome we will have is our equal share of misery.