However, one of the most recent efforts – a determination to destroy its decades-old docent program, letting go over 100 of its volunteers – has driven the museum into the public spotlight and ended in a rebuke from conservative media and frustrated docents.
Docent programs have long been pillars for major museums where trained volunteers guide visitors through a museum's collection. Museum equity consultants say the programs are old, have too many obstacles to entry, and, eventually, often skew toward a particular demographic: Wealthy, white women.
The dispute around the art institute's decision has sparked debate about docent programs, and equity as consultants, museum staff, docents, and Chicago residents clash over the way forward: Whether to edit the existing program or to destroy and reconstruct.
"Sometimes equity requires taking bold steps and actions," said Monica Williams, executive producer of The Equity Project, a Colorado-based consulting firm whose clients include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. "You really have to dismantle and disrupt the systems that have been designed to hold some up and others out."
On Sept. 3, Veronica Stein, the museum's executive director of learning and public engagement, emailed the museum's more than 100 docents, telling them the program's current emphasis would end. Stein told the Wall Street Journal that the museum must move "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."
The AIC did not present a copy of the Sept. 3 email to USA TODAY but said the pause is part of a "multi-year transition" to a "hybrid model that incorporates paid and volunteer educators."
The ruling led to a social media stir with conservative media. The Chicago Tribune criticized the move in an article titled "Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents" and advised the museum to recruit new, diverse docents instead.
Meanwhile, the institute's docent council sent a letter on Sept. 13 protesting the pause of the program. The letter called the docents' expertise, adding that they had trained twice a week for 18 months, done five years of research and writing, and participated in monthly and biweekly training.
"For more than 60 years, volunteer docents enthusiastically have devoted countless hours and personal resources to facilitate audience engagement in knowledgeable, relevant, and sensitive ways," the letter said.
Gigi Vaffis, president of the AIC's docent council, told USA TODAY that she and other docents felt blindsided by choice and weren't included in the decision-making. Even now, she said there are few details about what the AIC's multi-year plan will look like.
"We had no idea," said Vaffis, who has been a doctor for almost two decades. "We were very surprised. I was honestly a little gobsmacked."