Who Are These People?

Who Are Those People?

By Patrick F. Cannon

There are countless people around the world telling you all about what you’re looking at. They might be behind a microphone as you roll around London on a tour bus; or as you stroll down an ancient street in Rome; or as you look at a Velasquez at the Prado in Madrid.

            Some are called docents; some tour guides; and some interpreters. In my experience, the quality of what they say and how they say it varies widely. Some can be highly amusing, but highly inaccurate. And we’ve all let our minds wander as another drones on and on and on, accurate or not. As someone who has been talking to groups about architecture for more than 40 years – in buildings, on foot, and rolling along on a bus – I can tell you that among the best and most knowledgeable guides I have heard have been those at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC).   

            On September 3, these volunteers were fired, although the Art Institute would not have used that word. Historically, the majority were white women who could afford to devote considerable time and attention to their duties. Training was extensive, and included classroom and independent study; regular testing; and even a requirement to submit research papers. The AIC is an encyclopedic museum, which means it has permanent collections from multiple disciplines and periods. And of course it always has several special exhibits in various areas of the building. It has been said that the training was the equivalent of a master’s degree in Art History.

            In addition to giving tours of the permanent and special collections to visitors, the docents had a role in supporting the education of the numerous school groups that regularly visit the museum (pre-Covid), which has a facility dedicated to that task in the Modern Wing. In announcing the change in the docent program from volunteers to paid staff, the administration stressed the need to make the docents more reflective of the races and ethnicities of the children and visitors it serves. Because it has an endowment of $1.1 billion, it can presumably afford to make the change. To be fair to AIC, current docents will be able to apply for the paid positions; in reality, most will not fit the new criteria.

            I am a volunteer and supporter of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which operates tours of various Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings, two of which it was responsible for restoring – Wright’s own Home and Studio in Oak Park; and his famous Robie House in Hyde Park, which was honored as a World Heritage Site. Like so many small and house museums, it has little if any endowment to draw upon, so it depends heavily on unpaid volunteers. By the way, those volunteers also have a high level of training, including testing, mentoring and regular evaluation. You will find similar rigor at other organizations, including the Chicago Architecture Center, which gives the popular Chicago River Tour, among others.

            AIC isn’t the first attraction to eliminate its volunteer docents. Quite a few years ago, a very good friend was similarly terminated at the Lincoln Park Zoo, a place she dearly loved and gave dedicated service to for many years.

            AIC is not likely to change its mind. Like so many organizations, it has jumped on the “inclusion” bandwagon. It probably never occurred to them that they could simply have phased out their volunteer program over a period of years. Perhaps now they can concentrate on investigating the provenance of works in their collections. Who were these people who gave us all this money and art? What were their motives? Just where did they get all that cash?

            Museums around the world are being called to account for the sources of their money and art. While it is just to return works that were obtained illegally – art looted by the Nazis being only one example – what of money and works donated by former and current “robber barons” or other retrospectively shady characters? To some of our Marxist-leaning fellow citizens, any wealth is just money confiscated from the working stiff. While I would support taking Jeffrey Epstein’s name off a building or gallery, just as I support removing Robert E. Lee’s statue from public areas, what should we do with a work of art donated by some Pooh-Baw from the past, now known to have been a racist or anti-Semite?

            Since their money and art have made great works readily available to the public, regardless of their economic status, I would regret their actions, no matter how common during their lifetimes, and keep their money and art. If it was honestly acquired by the standards of the times, I’ll judge the Rembrandts or Picassos on their merit, not on whose money gave them to us.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon  

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