A union at the Art Institute of Chicago and the docent controversy.
The Art Institute of Chicago has been in the center of two news-making issues lately.
One involves the docents, who are the faces of the museum when it comes to direct art education to students and others.
The other involves the union organizing drive by low-paid museum workers which will now lead to a union election next month.
A good overview of the docent issue can be found in this story by Rebecca Zorach in Hyperallergic.
The union drive at the Art Institute of Chicago and similar union drives among art museum workers is summed up well in this article in In These Times.
When I taught my fifth grade students the artist trick of the vanishing point to create the illusion of distance, I demonstrated how two seemingly parallel lines would converge.
The controversy surrounding the change to the AIC docent program and the organizing of art museum and school workers are like that: Two parallel lines converging.
As a teacher who brought students to the Art Institute yearly I have had my issues with the teaching approach that the docent program uses.
Sometimes it was just the way my students were talked to in what I took as a condescending tone that I didn’t really like.
But that varied and depended on the personality of the docent.
In contrast, I remember going to a show at the Brooklyn Museum of quilts. The woman security guard watched us investigate the details of the quilt, a quilt she had been watching over for months.
She stepped forward to ensure we noticed the detail, the variety of stitches, the subject matter in different sections.
She shared all that because she felt connected to it, had spent time with it and felt an ownership.
And we learned so much from her sharing what she knew with us.
My substantive objection to these volunteer programs is that they are volunteers.
I am respectful and appreciate that the Art Institute docent’s work hard and are dedicated to what they do.
Art education is valuable work and I judge how valuable an institution judges work by looking at the budget line.
AIC President James Rondeau’s annual salary is close to a million bucks. And we know that doesn’t include the perks.
In talking to Therese Quinn, museum studies professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, we agreed that the plans to change the docent program at the AIC was little more than performance.
If it is diversity at an institution that you want, why start at the bottom with the volunteers?
It seems intended to hide more than it reveals.
For example. How diverse is the Art Institute at the management level?
That information is not easily available to us. If management art the Art Institute was proud of its management diversity they would shout it from the roof tops.
The Art Institute of Chicago offers much to this city.
For many it seems impenetrable and unwelcoming.
Just on a small micro level, why isn’t entry to the Art Institute free for every Chicago Public School student?
President Rondeau might have to take a small cut in pay.
But what the hell.