The Guardians in Retreat
Redefining its purpose as antiracism, the Art Institute of Chicago abandons its core mission of preserving history’s treasures and instructing future generations.
In 2012, the Art Institute of Chicago posted a tribute to its volunteer museum educators. “Our docents are incredible,” read the Facebook post. “ ‘To walk through the galleries and see children, led by docents, jumping up and raising their hands to talk is to see the work of the museum at its best,’ ” the entry continued, quoting then–Institute director Douglas Druick.
At that time, the Art Institute was still seeking to expand its docent corps. “We Want You! (To Become a Docent),” announced a contemporaneous article in the museum’s newsletter. The article emphasized the program’s rigor: becoming a docent “was no small task,” the museum advised, involving a competitive admissions process and written, supervised research on the museum’s collections.
Less than a decade later, in September 2021, the Art Institute shut down its docent program entirely and told its participants that they would no longer be allowed to serve the Institute in a volunteer capacity. Henceforth, six salaried part-time employees would replace the 82 unpaid educators. The docents were told to clean out their lockers; as a consolation prize, they were offered a two-year complimentary membership in the museum.
Had the docents been delivering subpar performances? Had the Institute discovered an incurable flaw in their training? No, it had noticed that they were overwhelmingly white. And that, in 2021, constituted a sin almost beyond redemption, whether found in an individual or in an institution.
The racialist wave that swept the United States following the arrest-related death of George Floyd in May 2020 has taken down scientists, artists, and journalists. Entire traditions, whether in the humanities, music, or scientific discovery, have been reduced to one fatal characteristic: whiteness. And now the antiwhite crusade is targeting a key feature of American exceptionalism: the spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism.
The Art Institute of Chicago is not the first museum to turn on its docent program. But it is the most consequential. It is worth tracing the developments that led to the docent firings in some detail. The Institute is a case study in what happens when museums and other cultural organizations declare their mission to be antiracism. The final result, if unchecked, will be the cancellation of a civilization.
Chicago’s Art Institute, founded in 1879 as both a museum and an art school, emerged from the post–Civil War wave of museum building. Successful businessmen from San Francisco to Boston created grand receptacles for European art in the spirit of democratic elitism, believing that history’s masterpieces should be available to all. The Institute’s original holdings consisted almost entirely of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture, reflecting the centuries-long view that the classical world represented the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the West. Soon, however, Chicago’s Gilded Age benefactors began donating a more sweeping range of works, starting with a bequest of 44 predominantly Barbizon School oil paintings from the widow of Henry Field, brother of the Marshall Field & Company founder. More than four dozen classics of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism came the Institute’s way in 1925 and 1926. Non-Western traditions started filling out the collections as well; the largest gift in the Institute’s history, from civic leader Martin Ryerson in 1933, included Asian art among Old Master paintings, textiles, and decorative arts.
Philanthropists underwrote the nearly continuous expansions of the Institute’s 1893 Beaux-Arts building on Michigan Avenue to accommodate the growing holdings. Today, the Institute constitutes one of the finest repositories of global art on the American continent; one small corridor, containing exquisite pastel portraits by Martin Quentin de la Tour, Chardin, and other Ancien Régime artists, alone warrants a visit.
The Institute’s docent program grew out of a particularly fertile period in American volunteerism—the 1950s, which saw the creation of hundreds of new civic associations, many organized and run by women. In 1951, a group of public-minded women from Chicago and its suburbs offered to help the Institute raise capital during an emergency fund drive; they were so successful that the museum incorporated their organization into its administrative structure. The newly created Woman’s Board next tackled children’s art education. The board proposed a corps of volunteer educators, despite the prevailing view in the museum world that only professionals should instruct the public, including children, about art. Ironically, it would be the head of the Woman’s Board who would deliver the docents’ death sentence 70 years later.
Barbara Wriston, sister of Citibank chairman (and later Manhattan Institute trustee) Walter Wriston, created the first docent curriculum in 1961. She insisted on “standards,” she later said. Students attended curatorial lectures, read widely in the museum’s library, and wrote papers proposing ways to communicate art-historical concepts to children. The 18-month program, run with “military” discipline, according to an inaugural trainee, was the virtual equivalent of an MFA; graduates followed up with ongoing study of art history and pedagogy.
The question of “inclusion” arose early. By the end of the 1960s, Institute staff were grappling with how to make the museum more “accessible” to Chicago’s poor communities. The museum began a series of targeted outreach efforts, such as Spanish-language programming and an urban professionals’ group to serve as ambassadors to black neighborhoods. The Woman’s Board provided framed reproductions of Institute art, carefully chosen for diversity, to all Chicago public and parochial schools, along with resources for teachers.
The museum’s most important outreach was simply the docent tours themselves, which brought thousands of public school students into the museum to experience its wonders. Though the docents were color-blind, docent training was expanded to include months of diversity awareness on the assumption that black and Hispanic children required a special method of delivery and special approach to art. The docents formed their own diversity and inclusion committee and presented activism-themed lectures in the pitch for “relevance.”
Meantime, universities had started “problematizing” art museums and their contents as means by which white males maintain their alleged privilege. In 1992, the dean of the Institute’s affiliated art school wrote that art raises questions about “who gets to write, to speak, . . . to frame and interpret reality, [and] to position their text as part of the cultural mastertext.” Academic theorists cast museums as tools of exclusion and art as a mask for power. It took a while for this demystifying reflex to migrate from academia into the very bloodstream of art museums, but by the second decade of the new century, curators and museum directors nationwide had become fluent in deconstructive rhetoric, which they directed at their own institutions. The death of George Floyd only accelerated the trend.
The Art Institute is emblematic of this conversion, by which the impulse to share culture becomes culpable and tainted by whiteness. In good show-trial fashion, Institute leaders confess to the “biases and inequities of our history and the present.” They are particularly exercised by the failure of their predecessors to embrace Black Lives Matter values. “Firmly rooted in Eurocentric tradition, the founding objectives of our institutional history did not consider gender, ethnic, and racial equity,” laments the Institute’s website. But no museum founder at the time was considering “gender, ethnic, and racial equity,” beyond a generalized aim to make beauty widely available to a democratic citizenry.
Not good enough. Today’s Art Institute accuses itself of sins of commission, not just of omission. The museum has long “centered certain stories while marginalizing and suppressing others.” The Institute, in this telling, did not just focus initially on those artists and traditions that its founders knew best and that they viewed as central to America’s cultural legacy: it actively sought to silence other artists and traditions out of a racist, colonialist impulse. Despite the Institute’s assertions, there is no evidence of such malign intent or unintended effect on the part of the founders or their successors.
The artists’ names carved across the exterior of the Institute’s original building are an especially fertile source of self-flagellation. The 35 individuals are a Who’s Who of Western art and architecture, starting with Praxiteles and Phidias from classical Greek times, proceeding through the early and high Renaissance (including Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Veronese) and into the Baroque (Rubens, Van Dyck, Velázquez, and Rembrandt). The roll call extends into the eighteenth century (Reynolds and Gainsborough) and ends with early-nineteenth-century Romanticism (Turner).
No such list can be exhaustive, and one can always quibble with the choice of this, rather than that, potential member. These 35 creators are nevertheless justifiably nominated as paragons of human achievement, each having broken into unexplored realms of representation. Yet if landmark preservation laws allowed, the Institute would have sandblasted the names off its entablature by now. The frieze is an “unsustainable formulation,” current Art Institute director James Rondeau said during a 2019 lecture, “in the context of our mission today.” Why? Because it presents “exclusively white Western European male artists.” (In his zeal to apologize for the founders’ “profoundly limited” art-historical aspirations, Rondeau overlooked the ninth-century Japanese court painter Kose Kanaoka, who also occupies a place on the frieze.) The museum’s Equity statement amplifies Rondeau’s dissatisfaction: “The omission of artists of color, especially Black artists, as well as female, Indigenous, and non-Western artists, is glaring.”
Only someone with an adolescent approach to reality would reduce Giotto, Dürer, and Murillo, say (also members of the frieze), to the common denominator of “whiteness” and “maleness”—preposterously unilluminating categories for artists with such different styles and sensibilities. The absence of any historical awareness on the part of frieze critics is equally “glaring,” to borrow a phrase, especially coming from an art museum. There were no known indigenous artists whom the Institute’s founders could have or should have memorialized; American Indian art was anonymous, produced within a collective craft tradition.
As for black and female artists, whom do the Institute’s equity enforcers think the 1893 frieze should have included? There were a few pre-twentieth-century black painters, and their works deserve wider exposure. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1897), for example, is a haunting psychological study, sharing the muted palette of Whistler and Tanner’s sometime-teacher Thomas Eakins. The Institute presciently bought a religious work from the artist in 1906, notwithstanding the callous discrimination that Tanner and his contemporaries experienced. But it would be ludicrous to equate any such premoderns to Botticelli, Raphael, and Titian (also commemorated on the frieze), if for no other reason than their lack of historical influence.
Female artists have been more numerous, and much effort has gone into elevating them to the creative pantheon. The Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi is a particular target for promotion. But however accomplished her work, only gender equity could justify inducting her into the highest ranks.
Identity, however, is now the driving force in the Institute’s collecting practices. Rondeau bragged in his 2019 speech, delivered at the Des Moines Art Center, that the first two trans artists had now entered the collection, as well as an indigenous artist who addresses “non-binary, gender, and sexual identity” in his work.
Sometimes such equity bingo produces a dilemma. In April 2019, the Institute purchased two nineteenth-century silk portraits embroidered by an Italian princess, Maria Isabella Albertini de Medici di Ottaiano, based on a design by a male painter. Rondeau’s assistant advised him that when flogging the purchase for equity and inclusion points, he should omit the “princess” descriptor. History, it seems, does not conform to contemporary moral classification schemes.
The self-abasement common in the post–George Floyd era is actually a form of self-aggrandizement. Individuals and institutions blame themselves for inequalities for which they have no responsibility in order to claim a current impact that they do not possess. The Institute has issued an acknowledgment of the “adverse consequences” of its “exclusionary past” for Chicago’s black neighborhoods. This acknowledgment is posturing. The sources of the area’s problems lie elsewhere. Nothing on the outside or inside of the Institute hurt Chicago’s South Side. The creation of Fragonard’s surprisingly proto-Expressionist Portrait of a Man in Costume and its 1977 gifting to the Institute, say, stripped no one of opportunity, unless one holds that anything made by a white person over the last 2,000 years is implicated in the West’s hardly unique lapses of compassion and equal rights. By that logic, every African work in the Institute’s collection must also be condemned for the genocidal tribal warfare practiced by African cultures and for the corruption that continues to depress Africa’s economic development.
The Institute’s “land acknowledgments,” now inserted at the beginning of every public pronouncement, are equally self-aggrandizing. “Our building is located on the traditional unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations; this region has been a center for Indigenous people to gather, trade, and maintain kinship ties since long before our Michigan Avenue building was constructed in 1893,” reads the Institute’s Equity page. The Institute’s statement implies that the three nations are still gathering on Michigan Avenue, or perhaps would do so but for the buildings’ footprint. In fact, the tribes were long gone by the time construction began; the Institute is not responsible for their disappearance, nor is Western art.
Asserting such an impact allows the Institute and its funders to position themselves as essential to the antiracism crusade, however, a much more exciting function than curating beauty—and now, crucially, the only way to attract foundation support. And so the Institute has redefined its mission: “The Art Institute of Chicago commits to advancing racial justice now and in the future.” The Institute will create an “antiracist culture” in the U.S. and internally, proclaims the museum’s statement of values. That responsibility can never be discharged; it is “intersectional and ongoing.” Translation: diversity consultants may feed at our trough indefinitely.
It would be enough to preserve history’s treasures and to teach visitors to understand those treasures’ place in the evolution of human expression. An art museum’s comparative advantage lies in its art-historical expertise, not in any supposed capacity for racial justice “work.” It should be a place apart, a sanctuary for aesthetic contemplation. But cultural authority today comes from one of two sources: the assertion of victimhood or the acknowledgment that one is oneself a victimizer. It is not open to the Institute to take the first course, given the race and sex of its founders. That leaves the vigorous assertion of racial guilt as the second-best means of retaining cultural capital.
In the years leading up to the docent sacking, the Institute deepened its self-directed exorcism rituals. Upon ascending to the directorship from his position as the Institute’s chief curator of modern and contemporary art, Rondeau volunteered himself for a three-day training in how to dismantle the systems of racism that hold back “ALAANA” (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Native American) individuals in the arts; Rondeau labeled the pedagogy “cathartic,” “eye-opening,” and “deeply moving.” The museum’s senior staff was put through the same catharsis. The Institute hired an equity consultant to assess its “structural and systemic issues of identity.” Hundreds of staff have taken off two days of work for another “incredibly powerful” (in Rondeau’s words) workshop in systemic racism. And in March 2021, the Institute hired the antiracism advocate who would become the docents’ nemesis.
The press release announcing Veronica Stein’s employment as the new Woman’s Board executive director said much about antiracism and little about art. Stein had previously worked at a foundation that provides arts-informed programming to youth in Chicago’s hospitals. She transformed that programming “toward antiracist, trauma-informed modules.” Her priorities throughout her career have been the design of “culturally responsive programming and anti-racist curricula,” priorities that the Institute shares, she said approvingly.
It was Stein who finalized and delivered the docent termination plan. Replacing the docents with paid educators “responds to issues of class and income equity,” she wrote them on September 3, 2021. Stein and the Institute imply that there exists a significant group of would-be tour guides who cannot pursue their dream of educating the public about art because they lack the “financial flexibility to participate.” This proposition is speculative at best. The Institute is trading a corps of nearly 100 highly trained and enthusiastic volunteers for six part-time staffers. The number of tours on offer will plummet. But it is better not to offer a tour to children at all than to do so in a way that fails to redress “class and income equity.”
The Institute’s chairman, Robert Levy, offered a different explanation in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. The docents constituted a “barrier to engagement,” he wrote. The Institute was choosing to “center . . . our students across Chicago—as we take this unexpected moment to rethink, redraw and iterate.” Sacking the docents was an example of the “critical self-reflection and participatory, recuperative action” that is required for the Institute to remain relevant to “changing audiences.”
This euphemistic phraseology, too, requires translation. Put simply, the Institute terminated the docents because they were, as Rondeau put it in Iowa, “99 percent white females.” “Centering” Chicago’s students means not subjecting them to the trauma of learning about art from white females volunteering their time and energy. (Rondeau’s “99 percent” estimate was too high, but the hyperbole was born of shame and frustration.)
The Institute has thus reinforced the consensus among the nation’s elites that racial divides should be deepened rather than dissolved. Using white docents to serve “urban schools,” Rondeau said in Iowa, creates a “disconnect between the voices [that students] hear for interpretation and the population we’re trying to serve.” Never mind that the docents were connecting to students through the language of art and perception. Their voices are irredeemably white, and thus a barrier to engagement.
Of course, this imaginative apartheid only works one way. No one would dare suggest that a black person can’t teach white students. But it is unobjectionable to say that whites are not competent to teach blacks.
It may be the case that inner-city Chicago students see whites, especially older bourgeois whites, as alien. But white middle-class females in the early twentieth century taught immigrants who did not look like them the fundamentals of American history and literature, helping them to assimilate into American culture. That instruction did not harm the immigrants. An encounter with the bourgeois world of accomplishment and manners could constitute a lifeline to Chicago’s inner-city children, compared with the oppositional underclass norms too prevalent in urban schools and families. Teaching them to expect color-coding and to view its absence as oppressive, by contrast, will prepare them for a life of resentment and excuse-making.
The new, paid educators will be chosen for their antiracist credentials, not for their ability to present art as a means of expanding one’s knowledge of what it means to be human. They must have previous experience facilitating “anti-racist” programming and be “equity-focused,” according to the Institute’s job announcement. A minimum of two years’ experience “working with people who identify as ALAANA” is a must. Once on the job, the new hires will deploy “anti-racist museum teaching,” develop “anti-racist pedagogy,” and engage “anti-racist student experiences.” One might think that students visiting the Institute were entering KKK territory, rather than a welcoming environment eager for their presence.
The overt white-culling that doomed the docents is becoming more frequent across the cultural landscape, exiling white artists from museum collections and exhibitions and white musicians from orchestras. In 2015, a Mellon Foundation survey found that 84 percent of curators, conservators, educators, and other professionals in art museums were white. Four percent were black and 3 percent Hispanic. The survey did not disclose the number of graduate degrees in art history going to minorities each year, the bare minimum of information needed to determine if museums were discriminating against qualified minority candidates. Nevertheless, the racial ratios were universally regarded as scandalous and “damning,” in the words of Art News.
In November 2021, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, bragged about its own “progress” in culling its docent corps: down from 85 percent white in 2017 to 76 percent white in 2019. Given the inarguable truth, as the Crocker put it, that “museums are the legacy of Western colonialism, serving as the products of straight, able-bodied, white, male privilege,” reducing the number of white docents was essential to ensuring that Crocker could serve as a “safe space to talk about systemic inequality and inequity.” Addressing “inequality and inequity” is now so obviously a function of an art museum as to require no explanation. A board member of several New York art venues reports: “Museums can’t hire a white person today; everyone’s looking to hire blacks.”
The fatal taint of whiteness is taking down not only the contents of our cultural legacy but also its means of transmission. Museum directors are openly disparaging the philanthropy, past and present, that makes their organizations and their jobs possible. Upon the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, director Max Hollein lamented the “inherent noblesse oblige of the founders’ ambitions,” reports James Panero in The New Criterion. The Met, according to Hollein, is connected to the logic of “what is defined as white supremacy.” James Rondeau views his board as his biggest obstacle to transforming the Art Institute into an antiracist vehicle. The board’s leadership, he told his audience at the Des Moines Art Center, was not “responding powerfully” to the “narratives” of oppression embraced by the museum’s paid staff. Rondeau was quick to worry about disrespect—not toward his own board but toward that of his host. “No offense to the trustees at the Des Moines Arts Center; I’m sure you’re better than . . .,” he trailed off. “I mean I have powerful affinity groups on my board that are invested [in this work] but it’s just that if I’m speaking to my board like I’m speaking to you, it’s like a giant. . . . ” Rondeau trailed off again.
The contradiction between museum directors’ social-justice pronouncements and their position as beneficiaries of the artistic and philanthropic traditions that they now disparage can reduce them to incoherence. Rondeau was asked in Iowa about his relationship to under-resourced ethnic museums in Chicago. His response was a non sequitur: There’s “like this weird kind of, weird concentration of capital that we represent, it’s like we’re kind of fundamentally not an equitable proposition. Like, I’ve got 40 Monet paintings. It’s weird you know, it’s just, it’s weird. Like there’s a, you know. And we’re in the business of kind of doing all this social-justice work and then just yesterday we, I, presided over buying like Pauline Bonaparte’s rock crystal casket for baby clothes [Pauline was the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte] for 1.5 million it was like sha-a-a-a . . . like super-rich, weird. We’re in the business of these, there’s seven [crystal caskets] in the world, like we, so we do have this weird Jekyll and Hyde thing going where we’re trying to do this work, but we’re in the business of, like, I got a lot of gold, you know, it’s just stuff.”
To the extent that this statement can be deciphered, it seems to suggest that the very fact of owning a collection is now a source of discomfort, though not enough to lead to voluntary resignations from this “super-rich, weird” concentration of capital. Those benefactors whose donations created the Institute might find it disconcerting to hear their gifts referred to as “just stuff.”
The new antiracism mission of museums is not an outgrowth of the democratic impulse that inspired those institutions—it is its repudiation. In 2018, Alice Walton, art benefactor and heiress to the Walmart fortune, told Rondeau that she wanted to give him a “ton of money,” by his recounting, to loan some of the Institute’s unexhibited holdings to poor rural communities in America. Rondeau was contemptuous. “I don’t want to get into your business, Alice,” he told her, with a sneering emphasis, “but I’m not sure poor rural communities in America need Toulouse-Lautrec. I’m not sure that that’s what they’re asking for. But this kind of art for the people, like, eat your Shakespeare, look at beautiful paintings, you will be ennobled, not so much. I don’t, you know, I don’t think that that methodology is sufficiently sophisticated even though we’re seeing it still operable.” Rondeau then hit Walton up for a contribution to Chicago’s ethnic museums that “struggle to keep their doors open.” What is the difference between the poor rural communities that don’t need the Art Institute’s art and the hoped-for audiences of Chicago’s ethnic museums that deserve Walton’s money? The former are white, the latter are not.
The persistent denigration of our cultural institutions and their supporters as bearers of oppressive white privilege is taking its toll. During an equity and inclusion session for the board of the Whitney Museum of Art in October 2021, board member Laurie Tisch observed that it was a “tough time to be a not-for-profit leader. People are tiptoeing around every issue . . . afraid of every word coming out of their mouth being sliced and diced.” Organization heads have been taken down; it may be difficult to get the next generation of leadership, she added.
It will be even more difficult to get the next generation of art lovers. Identity politics poisons its host. As with classical music, instructing potential audiences that an art form is repressive will only give them another reason to maintain their ignorance. (See “Classical Music’s Suicide Pact,” Summer 2021.) And yet museum directors are doubling down on just such a message; the Metropolitan Museum of Art engages humanities professors to “challenge” the Met’s “history and collections”—as if such challenges are not already pouring forth spontaneously from the academy.
There is no counterpart to American philanthropy, not even in other Western nations. In the absence of royal patrons for the arts, wealthy Americans created institutions that would pass on our inheritance, confident that there was something worth preserving in that inheritance. Now the antiracism crusade erodes that belief by the day. Voluntarism was already on the decline before the racial-justice movement; it hit a 15-year low in 2015. Good luck finding volunteers and donors if some of the most generous of them are told that their whiteness brands them as pariahs and that the American and Western past is defined by white oppression. In 2012, the top 1 percent of donors gave 43.5 percent of all individual donations. Impugn their identities and their “super-rich, weird” capital, and nonprofits might have considerably less “gold” with which to pursue their social-justice ambitions. Following the docent sacking, letter writers to the Chicago Tribune announced that if the Institute can do without its volunteers, it must not need financial contributions, either.
Western civilization is not about whiteness; it is a universal legacy. But the guardians of that civilization, by portraying it as antithetical to racial justice because of demographic characteristics, are stunting the human imagination—and impoverishing the world.
Top Photo: The storied Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879 as both a museum and an art school (ELROY CHIEN/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)
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