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Dozens line up to visit The Obama Portraits, featuring Kehinde Wiley’s painting of former President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrayal of former First Lady Michelle Obama, on the first day the official portraits are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Friday morning, June 18, 2021.

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Too much white in the palette

The Art Institute firing its volunteer docents in favor of paid guides leads to charges of anti-white bias.

Dozens lined up outside the Art Institute of Chicago in June to visit The Obama Portraits, featuring Kehinde Wiley’s painting of former President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrayal of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
| Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Harvey E. Clark was a CTA bus driver and World War II vet. In July 1951, he moved his family’s belongings into an apartment at 6139 W. 19th Street in Cicero. Before they could reside there, however, his would-be neighbors went berserk, rampaging through the building while the Cicero police stood by, doing nothing. Thousands of rioters smashed windows and dragged the Clarks’ furniture into the street. The governor had to call out the Illinois National Guard.

Clark was Black. I am white, but nevertheless can still convey the story of how Cicero greeted the family that would have been the suburb’s first Black residents.

At least I hope so; it’s in my next book. That hope is open to debate, however. In our current fraught racial moment, who is saying something can count as much as what is being said. Maybe more. The Art Institute of Chicago, like many old guard cultural institutions, is trying to be less lily white, and the museum’s eye fell on its staff of volunteer docents, who were fired en masse Sept. 3. Not for what they were telling visitors; but for who was doing the telling.

“As a civic institution, we acknowledge our responsibility to rebuild the volunteer educator program in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate,” is how Veronica Stein, the Woman’s Board executive director of Learning and Public Engagement, put it in an email delivering the bad news. “Rather than refresh our current program, systems and processes, we feel that now is the time to rebuild our program from the ground up.”

Fox News expressed it far more succinctly: “Chicago museum fires all of its mostly White female, financially well-off docents for lack of diversity.”

I think that’s why I initially ignored the story. Nobody cries like a bully, and while the Red Staters try to blind America to its racist past, labeling honest assessment of history as “critical race theory” and banning it by law, they seek cover by cherry-picking tales of cancel culture overreach, mostly from academia, to pretend that they are victims. Why amplify that?

Plus, on one level I’m sympathetic to the Art Institute, which through a spokesman said that they’ve been working with docents on restructuring the program since April 2019, and the COVID-19 lull was a perfect time to move forward.

What was the museum supposed to do? Call the docents in, one by one, offer them herbal tea and a hand to hold? Distribute Rembrandt etchings as goodbye gifts? Sometimes you have to rip off the bandage. Maybe Chicago high school students being shepherded through the galleries will be less closed to what they’re seeing if they aren’t chaperoned by Aunt Bee and the Mayberry Ladies Art Appreciation Society.

That’s harsh, I know, and you have permission to feed it back to me when I am frog-marched out the door. Maybe ignoring the docent defenestration is a kind of Martin Niemöller timidity: “Then they came for the museum docents, and I did not speak out, because I am not a museum docent...”

The tragedy of racism is that it seems to give permission to ignore the dignity and worth of individuals you are dealing with. That doesn’t apply to only one race. If you punch me in the face because I’m white, that’s the same sin were I to punch you in the face because you’re Black. Neither my not-on-my-block animosity, nor your citing 250 years of slavery, are valid justifications for cruelty. Just empty excuses.

Bisa Butler. Southside Sunday Morning, 2018. Private collection. © Bisa Butler. Photo by Margaret Fox.
The recent exhibit of quilts by artist Bisa Butler reflect the Art Institute of Chicago’s attempt to appeal to a more diverse audience.
© Bisa Butler/Photo by Margaret Fox

The day before Stein wrote her letter, the Art Institute closed its Bisa Butler show, an exquisite exhibit of bold, colorful quilts celebrating Black individuality. The crowd when I visited was young, diverse and appreciative, and it struck me at the time that this might be the way out of the white bread corner the Art Institute has painted itself into. By offering engaging fare that a broader section of the city actually wants to see.

Sad that it is followed immediately by this stumble, due to carelessness more than anything else. Restoring an ancient Greek urn takes time and focus; so does repairing an old museum. If one thing is truer now than ever, you cannot compartmentalize. Today’s private email is tomorrow’s meme. Giving the backhand to the upper-crust white ladies of a certain age who give tours in September sends a shudder through the upper-crust white ladies of a certain age who write checks in October. One assumes the second group is still welcome at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Lions of Michigan Avenue, located outside the Art Institute in the Loop, is seen in this photo, Wednesday morning, April 7, 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
One of the lions outside the Art Institute of Chicago in the Loop.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
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