Art history never seemed so important beforeNeil Steinbergon October 28, 2021 at 6:25 pm

The Art Institute does nod to current events, such as when their famous lions out front were attired in Chicago Sky jerseys to celebrate the team’s playoff run. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

On Thursday, the Art Institute announced that five experienced docents would be hired to join their “Educator Advisory Council” to help mentor new docents.

Some columnists hobbyhorse an issue, hitting it again and again and again. Me, I try to be a one-and-done kind of guy. Why? Because if I bump into Jesus Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount in Grant Park, and decide to stretch that into a two-parter, with a third column for reader reaction, by that last day, I promise, you’ll be thinking, “What, again with Jesus?”

But the Art Institute firing its white docents en masse deserves a second visit. It both speaks of our uneasy racial moment, and has the makings of being one of those evergreen PR disasters still talked about 25 years later, the way when I pass bottles of Perrier in a supermarket I shiver and think, “benzene.”

The Perrier benzene contamination was in 1990. Maybe it’s me. But people generally have long memories for anything negative.

The good news is that disasters do eventually fade. This isn’t the first Art Institute’s public blunder, you know. Who remembers that the museum once carelessly stashed three Cezanne paintings in a janitor supply closet? From where they were stolen, the theft going undetected because Art Institute procedures were so lax. That wasn’t sunk into the distant heroic past. It was 1978.

And nobody at all remembers that students from the School of the Art Institute once gathered at the museum to hold a mock trial of an artist, whom they condemned for “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color,” among other crimes. They burned reproductions of his paintings and would have burned the artist too, in effigy, had the police not stepped in.

The artist was Henri Matisse.

All right, that was in 1913 and the School of the Art Institute was and is a separate place from the Art Institute. (The school is much older; the museum began as a gallery for student works). But nuance doesn’t enter into these scandals. I personally think the museum acted in a defendable manner when birthing this fiasco. Every step a rational one, in the desired direction, right off the cliff.

Almost every reader who reacted to last Friday’s column on the laid-off docents grumbled first over the unfairness of it. “Ageist, racist, sexist and classist” as one museum member pronounced, several times.

So was their being there in the first place. By offloading their public face to volunteers (an astounding cheapness, considering how flush the museum is) it guaranteed the job would be picked up by a specific sort of person. Not a lot of young Black males have the luxury of spending hours giving tours to school kids for free.

Readers weren’t grumbling then. It’s like that protest sign, “They only call it class warfare when we fight back.” It’s only racism when somebody tries to fix it.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Face masks were placed on the Art Institute lions in April 2020 near the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Though one of the masks was stolen, it was quickly replaced.

As for institutional knowledge lost. Yes, if your primary interest is making sure that those kids herded through the door have instant access to the deepest well of information about Caillebotte, then yes, the status quo was ideal. But here’s the thing: if you’re a middle schooler from Roseland, you’re probably not really looking for deep background on Rembrandt. You’re looking, at first, for somebody you can relate to. And the museum is looking to welcome such visitors in such a way that they might conceivably come back on their own. Spinning mightily, on Thursday the Art Institute announced that five experienced docents would be hired to join their “Educator Advisory Council” to help mentor new docents.

Is this really incomprehensible? I think people aren’t trying. They assume the map they’re reading is the only map in existence, and it isn’t. Change is hard, so rather than get a new map, as I try to do, they’re trying to redirect history’s river, and that’s a lot harder.

I know what’s coming. The new docents will be in place, and one will confuse Monet and Manet. The video will go viral and my mailbag will cry, in chorus: “See!” Which is just so sad.

Two Fridays in a row on the Art Institute. Heck, maybe I should devote every Friday to it. Wouldn’t that be fun? Heck, I should start giving tours of the place myself, sub rosa. I could pause in front of a Rodin bronze and carefully explain how the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke actually was Rodin’s secretary. Amazing! The kids would love that …

Maybe not.

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