Service of Volunteers II

October 28th, 2021

Categories: Disrespect, Museums, Volunteers

What is it about museums? The last time I wrote about volunteers was in 2012 and oddly, it also involved a museum’s shabby treatment of its volunteers. Then the Brooklyn Museum suddenly disbanded its 64 year old Community Committee formed to raise the museum’s profile, start a docent program, give presentations in low-income schools with items from the collection, and plan events. The committee was kicked to the curb.

This time it’s the Art Institute of Chicago that dismissed its 82 docents ending the program in a letter. The goal of the new program, wrote Robin Pogrebin in her New York Times article, is to “forge closer ties with the racially and economically diverse city it serves.”

She reported “The docents — longtime, dedicated volunteers who know the Institute and its collections intimately — lamented the decision.” The Chicago Tribune “denounced the move in an editorial headlined ‘Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents.’”

Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay  

The editorial “described the dismissal of the docents as ‘a callous move in a cruel time in America’ and called on Mr. Rondeau to ‘apologize and find some kind of compromise that does not involve the spectacle of long-serving devotees of a great museum left to feel like they’ve been put out with the gift-store trash.’” James Rondeau is the museum director.

According to Pogrebin “The new plan calls for hiring paid educators — Ms. Stein invited the volunteers to apply for those positions — and then developing a new program over the next few years.” Veronica Stein is “the executive director of learning and public engagement for the museum’s Woman’s Board, which supports education activities.”

Pogrebin reported: “The docents at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston are all volunteers. ‘For many years we have worked concertedly to attract a diverse corps of docents,’ said Gary Tinterow, the Houston museum’s director, ‘and we look forward to continued diversification of staff and volunteers.’”

I come from a long line of volunteers–Two grandmothers, mother and father, uncles and aunts rolled up many a sleeve for decades–and my sister continues to do so. I’ve done my share and can speak only for myself: It seems so easy to disrespect and discount volunteers and cut off their contributions in a trice like unwanted suckers on a tree trunk–so why not do it? Are volunteers treated with disrespect because they are not salaried? Is it because many are retired and therefore old and not in sync with what an organization wants its image to be? Are museums alone or is this behavior typical of all organizations that use volunteers?

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay  

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17 Responses to “Service of Volunteers II”

  1. Francine Ryan Said:

    I would be curious to learn more about why the docents were dumped.

  2. ASK Said:

    From what I understand from friends who have volunteered at some well-known NYC museums, it helps very much if the docent is also a big donor. From what I’ve observed many of these docent positions are a measure of one’s status within a specific social group as well.

    Also, some of the docents who have served for very long periods have developed sharp elbows and guard their turf carefully. Or so I’ve heard from several alumnae of my alma mater who have also retired and volunteered, one of whom was in charge of docent assignments at a major NYC institution.

    Perhaps paid educators are not such a bad idea…but, again, I am not speaking from personal experience.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    In addition to forging “closer ties with the racially and economically diverse city it serves” that I note in the post–that reporter Robin Pogrebin described, including a plan to hire paid educators–here’s more info from the letter that closed the program also from Pogrebin’s New York Times piece: “Veronica Stein, the executive director of learning and public engagement for the museum’s Woman’s Board, which supports education activities, said that the museum wanted to ‘rebuild our program from the ground up.’”

    And “Robert M. Levy, the Art Institute’s chairman, responded with a defense of the decision in The Tribune, writing that officials were taking ‘thoughtful and measured steps’ to pursue ‘a new national art education model.’”

    I thought this was interesting: “At the Met, 400 of the museum’s 1,000 volunteers are docents, whose program “brings great value to our institution” and “will continue to evolve,” said Daniel H. Weiss, the president and chief executive. “It is incumbent on all institutions,” he added, “to ensure that their programs and policies are aligned with their values and responsive to current needs.”

    In fact, there is more and the article is worth a read:

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    An organization has a right to change the way it does business, but a little respect would be in order to people who may have devoted thousands of hours to learn and then share the information they need to do the job. In both examples the programs were cut out in a letter–as a vendor of self-stick museum IDs might be notified after a cheaper supplier is found.

    Groups of volunteers share some things in common: there will be the “funders who run” things and do nothing but toss well needed money at programs and those who do the heavy lifting. There are the divas and the humble, some truly interested in the mission and others looking purely at what the organization can do for them.

    I don’t think that museums are known for paying big salaries so that a woman or man without other means of support would still likely look elsewhere for employment. The goal of adjusting the makeup of the educators to better reflect the complexion of a community may be arbitrary and impractical.

  5. ASK Said:

    Whatever the reason for the dismissals, I don’t think the museum(s) are likely to be terribly frank with the press. But I am not sure a phone call, a meeting, or a even a thank-you-for-your-service gift would have assuaged the feelings of the departed docents.

    Having worked with numerous historical societies and houses as well as small museums, I have found that there are a few hard-core volunteers that run things, some that fund projects and programs, and those that are filling time. I suspect it may have been many of the latter group that were released.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    All were let go at both museums.

    And your experience with historical society members [and I had my share as well] matches the makeup of co-op boards and industry association boards and committees.

    Especially because as you noted earlier some of the docents are also major museum supporters, an organization should be able to come up with something a little more elegant than a letter that reminded me of a notification my apartment building manager sends out to warn that the water will be turned off for repairs next Tuesday from 10 am to 4 pm. There must be some use for these people–a project that would separate wheat from shaft so the organization can rid itself of those unable or unwilling to participate.

  7. TC Said:

    Agree! Agree! Maybe all part of creeping counter culture movement. Do you remember the many business/social clubs that gave voluntarily of time and money for various community needs? The museum docent firing makes no sense. Probably looked upon as liability or even potential “activists.” Crazy.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There still are business organizations that are generous supporters of local causes. Until recently I was on a committee that raised scholarship money and many if not most business organizations do the same. Clubs organize giving trees and jumble sales at Christmas and provide other opportunities to support the needy.

    The irony here is that the two museums in question have among their collections ancient artifacts and yet they kick to the curb the old timers who have supported them with sweat equity if not treasure.

  9. Deb Wright Said:

    I have a dear friend who has been involved with The Art Institute of Chicago her entire life. She is in touch with several of the docents. She is furious. To be a docent at this art museum, you have to have TWO years of training. So many of these people have volunteered for decades and often come to volunteer four days a week! As a final insult, in the letter that “fired” them, they were to get one year of free membership to the Art Institute. I am not positive it was in the letter, but my friend said they wanted much more cultural diversity in the docent population. Well, think about this. If you are a minority, do you have the time to get the training while you are pursuing a career? In other words, old white women are not wanted in spite of their volunteering and their unselfish donations. The Art Institute is going to lose many wealthy donors over this.

    I have volunteered for libraries, schools, and public reading groups (The Great Books Foundation) and for our county retired teacher organization. Most of the time, my efforts are appreciated. Once in a while, especially if I lessen my load, I get the cold shoulder, but that is not often.

    Good question about dismissing older adults who volunteer if they don’t look young and don’t look “hip.”

  10. jmbyington Said:


    I can’t fathom who came up with the pathetic peace offering of a year membership to people who have donated hundreds of hours a year to the institution. I hope the great minds clearly more caring of inanimate objects than people take a breath and revise their either-or position. In an attempt to reach out to additional members of their community why did they feel it was OK to mistreat others?

  11. Nancie Steinberg Said:

    Nancie wrote on Facebook: That’s awful. I had no idea.

  12. BC Said:

    With a stressful medical career, I never had time to volunteer, except at church. You know, God loves a volunteer!

    At the hospital, the volunteers were organized by the more elite, wealthy women of the community, all white of course. Seemed to be a status symbol to be a hospital volunteer. They also raised money for small items the hospital needed. They were very revered by all hospital staff.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Most of my work life I, too, didn’t have time to look left or right to meet deadlines but it turned out that joining some industry associations and participating at board level I benefited my career and made crucial connections. I was able to put my heart into both paid and volunteer work and somehow it all got done. So we could eat dinner at a somewhat decent hour my husband, who never complained about my work hours, became a talented cook–a win win.

    The volunteers I never understood were those who did themselves a disservice by consistently dropping the ball. Instead of helping their reputations they did the opposite.

    I’ve seen video clips of retired men and women who hold premature babies in a hospital during the day when parents must go to work. I’ve always wondered if this was fiction. I imagine since COVID if it did exist, it no longer does.

  14. Hank Goldman Said:

    We also thought that the releases were done in a very crass manner…

    It’s a different world today… We are trying to keep up with it!

  15. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think that we should not let such behavior go by without a squawk. Good for the Chicago Tribune which made noise! These hard working docents were treated cavalierly and as though they contributed nothing to the institution. If I lived in Chicago and was a member of the museum I would think twice before renewing. If enough people did that the powers there might get a message they understand.

  16. Edward Baecher Said:

    Edward on Facebook: Do they have funds to hire salaried people?

  17. Jeanne Byington Said:


    That’s the flaw. They employ plenty of people but aren’t known for their salaries. Trust fund kids often snag the jobs —what fun the work often is—as others can’t afford to accept them. This automatically narrows the pool of possible candidates from the range of backgrounds in and around a city they would like to employ. Wonder if they hope the fired docents with deep pockets will fund a pool of money to up the pay.

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