The Art Institute of Chicago fired all of its trained volunteers and guides last month in efforts to increasingly diversify its team.
Most of the fired individuals were older white women, Fox News reports.
“We were surprised, we were disappointed,” Gigi Vaffis, president of the docent council, said in an interview. “There is an army of very highly skilled docents that are willing and ready and able to continue with arts education.”
The Institute previously had more than 100 docents, 82 of whom were active, until an executive director of learning sent an email in September firing them all. Docents are trained volunteers who lead tours of museums and averaged 15 years of unpaid service at the Institute.
Veronica Stein, an executive director of learning and engagement, said that the museum needed to take a new path “in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, respond to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility.”
In a September letter, the docents detailed the hard work that went into their volunteer work: “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 pieces.
“It was nearly a full-time job,” Dietrich Klevorn, a docent since 2012, said. “We had to spend a lot of time physically in the museum studying works of art, researching, putting tours together.”
The Institute, however, told Fox News that they did not fire anyone.
“We thought we were being very clear when outlining our plan, but somehow this has been twisted into unfounded accusations of reverse racism resulting in lewd threats against our staff,” a spokesperson said. “We’re simply pausing a volunteer educators program and would never want to diminish the contributions they have made. This should not be the roots of a culture war.”