The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has backed the famous art museum.
The announcement of the end of the renowned Art Institute of Chicago’s docent program has left many artists and critics upset.
“This is a reminder that exhibitions and curators are not experts in actual art, they are experts in theory and problem solving,” wrote Anne Smith after the Art Institute announced it was ending its docent program on March 6.
“If you care about what happens to new art after it leaves the Museum, you should be upset,” wrote Annette Cichetti, one of the founding editors of Decadence magazine, in a letter to the curator.
The program, which began at the Art Institute in 1966 and was the inspiration for the famous program at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has gone on to become an institution in itself. But that association with renown and education, most prominent in the tradition of the vast Met, has made canceling it an almost achingly cold decision by the institution, say historians of museum design.
A 2014 list of the biggest creative moments at the Met by the Wall Street Journal analyzed the institution’s art education programs, beginning with the docent program, a staff of 300 to 400 people with a variety of duties, who teach the basic information on a work in several languages and with a rigorous training in the basics of art and the history of art, as well as in general English and literature.
Other records show that 30 to 40 percent of Met docents did not have a diploma from a college, nearly half did not have any high school formal education and about 10 percent had only a high school diploma. The top rank of the program was 35, which was by far the highest.
How did the Art Institute reach this point?
Most of the time, it has been a question of politics.
The university has an unprecedented collection of art that it wants to preserve but also needs to run a business. And over the past several years, the institute has struggled with declining donations and revenues. “The Art Institute of Chicago has to manage a budget in what has become an ever changing world, and with all the attention given to museums since the Great Recession,” said Hywel Griffith, a professor in the department of art history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who specializes in the history of art museums.
One group supporting the Art Institute of Chicago said it worked hard to try to maintain programs to train docents. Charles A. Ray, a chairman of the museum who is president of the History of Art Museum Association, said in a statement, “We ask that the news media take note of what the Art Institute does every day to try to be as professional as possible, in terms of staffing and training.”
Another photojournalist, Jen Smith, began a petition earlier this month at Change.org, writing: “I feel betrayed and completely denied of the opportunity to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago because curators and museum leaders fear ‘acceptance by the community’ and ‘taking chances on some new initiatives.’ I resent having to be told what a docent looks like and how to see art.”
A chapter from Art Institute’s brochure about a docent training program is reproduced in the petition with this blurb: “A docent must be qualified to teach in all three languages. From that point on, the learning process is on a career ladder, through the institutes, to positions at the curators’ desks. Pursue career choice in any medium and choose the profession that you love best.”
An organization called the Arts’ Title I Teaching Assistance (TAT) program helps the museum make its training program available in other institutions. According to Aichi Kawashima, the program’s director of work force development, there are about 5,000 docents or “teaching assistants” in the United States. They work on an hourly rate.
A TAT program at the Museum of Modern Art, he said, pays about $200 a week and a typical student spends about four to eight weeks, he said. “They do the actual teaching, they share the time, so they have a busy career as well.”
Since the announcement, a group has formed, the Public Act to Support the Art Institute of Chicago’s Docent Training, to discuss the job of the docent and to begin a petition drive.
“There are many aspects of the jobs of docents that are a blight on the profession and the quality of what we learn from exhibitions,” the group states on the petition.
But several scholars of museums over the years have also argued