A sculpture from the Getty collect reassures itself that everything is alright (via flickr.com/thegetty)

Earlier this month, the J. Paul Getty Trust announced that it was cutting 34 jobs in its museum division. In and of itself, this wasn’t huge news; despite the absurdly booming art market, the national economy continues to sag, meaning museums have to contend with smaller endowments and less generous donors.

While museum cuts are nothing new, the Getty case is notable because of the fact that the cuts fall almost entirely on the institution’s education department. The education staff will decrease from 51 employees to 32, according to the LA Times, and Chasing Aphrodite reported that of the 17 gallery teachers employed, only five will keep their jobs. Curatorial and conservation staffs remain untouched, although there are a handful of layoffs in other areas, such as visitors services.

The Times summed up the major change to the education department:

Volunteer docents, trained by the remaining professional staff, will replace the paid teachers who had led tours of the galleries by students and other groups of visitors. “I think that was unique to the Getty,” [Getty President James] Cuno said, so reassigning the tours to volunteers would bring it in line with the standard practice at other museums.

“The Getty is not known for being an institution with a world renowned art collection. They were famous for their Education Department. Now they have neither.”

But are docents really standard practice at most other museums? And even if so, does standard practice mean best practice? The Getty has long been known for its fantastic education program, which no doubt derives in large part from the number of highly skilled, paid museum educators employed the museum. “They have a world-famous reputation for providing some of the highest quality museum education instructional materials available anywhere,” Bob Sabol, president of the National Art Education Association, told Hyperallergic. This begs the question: Why gut and restructure a department that already works so well?

The Getty’s James Cuno offered two reasons for the cuts. The first is saving money, an expected total of $4.3 million annually, which will be redirected to acquisitions. “Acquisitions are at the heart of the Museum’s mission — education, exhibitions, and research flow from the Museum’s collection,” Cuno told Hyperallergic in a written statement. “The funds we saved from the reorganization restore the Museum’s acquisitions budget to its previous levels.”

At the Getty Museum (image via Flickr user CAHairyBear)

Still, it’s hard not to be skeptical of how helpful an extra $4.3 million will be in today’s market. Lindsay Ash, a former Getty educator, wrote to Hyperallergic via email:

The Getty is not known for being an institution with a world renowned art collection. They were famous for their Education Department. Now they have neither. I can’t see how the financial savings from one will contribute significantly to the other. Did you see what ‘The Scream’ sold for recently? What does a $4.3 million savings per annum get you in the art world?

Of course it’s worth noting that not every piece that goes up for auction is “The Scream” — presumably smaller, lesser-known works would be more affordable. But George Hein, a former Getty visiting scholar and a museum education expert, told Hyperallergic that when he was there, “the museum spent $45 million on one painting.” And considering the Getty’s $5.6 billion endowment in mid-2011 and its $269.8 million budget in 2010–11, $4.3 million does seem somewhat meager.

The second reason given for the changes is that by reducing costs in the education department, i.e. by bringing in volunteers, the museum can then offer more tours — essentially, increasing tours while decreasing professional, paid staff. Sound familiar? This seems to fall in line with today’s all-too-common workplace phenomenon that less can somehow be more (and that unpaid interns or volunteers can do much of the work).

“If this is happening with just increasing the number of docents, they may have an increased number, but they may not meet their educational mission,” said Sabol. “The museum education staff play a vitally essential role in meeting the museum’s mission. Without that, the docents will basically be relying on their own knowledge.”

In other words, docents are great, but museums need professional educators to train them.

In his statement to Hyperallergic, Cuno countered that the quality of the department’s offerings would not suffer:

This new approach will not reduce our educational programs or the quality of teaching available at the Museum. We have a staff in the Education Department of more than 30 professionals. Five gallery instructors will remain on staff to work with college, adult, VIP, and some school-age audiences. They also will play a major role in the training of a new corps of volunteer instructors, who will enable us to provide far more guided tours than we were previously able to provide.

He went on to provide some numbers, saying that last year, only 39,000 out of 114,000 students who visited the Getty had guided tours given by gallery instructors; the rest were self-guided or had “minimal assistance” from the museum. “An expanded docent teaching corps, carefully selected and expertly trained by our experienced gallery instructors, along with the development of multimedia tours, will enable us to meet our goal of 100% guided tours within the constraints of our budget,” Cuno wrote.

But students aren’t the only group that need or receive tours, and the fact remains that there are only five gallery instructors left to handle college, adult, VIP and some school audiences, as well as to help ensure that the new docent “corps” is, in fact, expertly trained. That sounds like very few people spread very thin, which could affect how good the training is, and thus the tours.

Hein elaborated on the issue of quality: “The big question is what is the museum educator’s background?” he said. “Educators often come out of art historical backgrounds. They know about education, human development, leading groups. Whether volunteer docents are likely to be as good is a good question.” One would assume they have the potential to be, but only after learning extensively from the professionals. And what about the consistency, dedication and creativity of a volunteer docent who comes to the museum one or two days a week versus those of someone who’s pursued a full-time career in museum education? (Not to knock docents — we think they’re great! They’re just different.)

Hein also brought up another interesting and related problem — the diversity of tour guides:

The probability that volunteer docents will reflect the range of society that you want to reach in your tours is very low, because they are people who are free on weekdays during working hours who volunteer their time. It’s very unlikely you’re going to get a lot of working-class folks in that category. If you want to have people who are more able to reflect your community, then I think you would work hard to get a larger range of people and you would pay them.

It’s too early to say how exactly these cuts will affect the Getty’s education department and the quality of its output, but people in the museum education world are concerned — and seemingly with good reason. A 2004 article in Spiked quotes Cuno’s book Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust, in the process offering insight into what the current Getty director sees as the limits and pitfalls of museum education:

“‘ … [M]useums can supplement education, but the classroom has proved to be the best way of educating people. … Museums are saying: ‘we can keep children off drugs, we can improve test scores. When that doesn’t happen, what have you got left?’ Once they’ve abandoned their mission, ‘museums are left with no justification.’”

But Bob Sabol has a different view:

You think about the museum more as a classroom rather than a warehouse. It’s a place where people go to learn about art. It’s not simply a place where a collection is housed so that it can be protected — it’s there for a purpose. Everybody that goes to a museum is there to learn, whether they realize it or not. If the people that come don’t feel that they have met their reason for going, they’re not going to continue to come.

This conflict, between those who view collections and conservation as the most important part of a museum’s mission and those who think education is equally important is, Hein pointed out, “nothing new.” He quoted Nathaniel Burt’s 1977 book Palaces for the People: A Social History of the American Art Museum. In it, Burt writes, “There is that battle, still contentious, between Instruction and Joy. Are museums Universities of Vision or Churches of the Eye?”

Thirty-five years later, we’re still fighting it.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

9 replies on “Should Museum Acquisitions Come at the Expense of their Education Departments?”

  1. This is a great story, and I’m glad there’s discussion about museum layoffs. However, there’s been plenty of layoffs nationwide in curatorial departments; it’s rare for education departments to get the axe because they do allow for a revenue stream that curatorial departments don’t always have. The Getty’s focus on growing their collection seems to be one that’s going to bring in more donors.

  2. This a popular and valid point of view amongst museum educators coming off the Getty’s decision. And I, for one, am sad to see so many talented and trained educators lose their jobs. That said, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the Getty has been cutting jobs and resources from various departments over the last 2 years and education has been largely unscathed through most of it until now. One should also note that before Cuno came on board, the acquisitions funds were cut to hire paid educators so Cuno, as the new head, was called to increase those fund areas and it seems like he left education cuts until the end. Lastly, though we all know that volunteers can’t always provide the quality of experience we would ideally like, it is important to note that the paid educators who the Getty is keeping on will be training and recruiting this new docent volunteers so I feel better in knowing that the Getty is not devaluing the resources that paid educators provide but repurposing their roles to stay financially viable and meet the demands of their board. Though many museums are attempting to move to paid educators for touring, the vast majority still have strong and vital docent cores that handle these types of visitors experiences. Training for these docent cores is a critical part in providing high quality education and I think the Getty is approaching that aspect of it in the right way by employing their paid and experienced educators to take this on. I think educators can get touchy about any kind of cuts, and they have good reason considering the state of our educational system. But I think we need to be careful in condemning the Getty outright for a decision that was surely not about stating that education was not important but recognizing that education is vunerable in the same way every other department has been there for the last 2 years. Remember the Getty has long been a leader in the field of museum education research and museum leadership training – one decision should not take away from the contributions they have and will surely continue to make to the field. My comments here are not about disagreeing but rather to present a wider perspective on what is happening there. I think the best thing we can do as museum professionals is advocate for museums as educational institutions in our communities. One day, I hope we, the next generation of leaders, can practice what we are preaching. I think we can, but we’ll have to wait to get to the top to find out.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Sheetal. I think you make bring up some really good points about the history and context. I do think, however, that at the end of the day there is a fundamental, philosophical divide between people who really stress the educational role and value of museums and those who believe much more strongly in the institutions as houses/temples of culture. Without making a judgment about which side is right (which I find impossible anyway), I’d say it’s clear where Cuno stands.

  3. I agree that 4.3 million is pretty paltry. Will that even get you a page of a medieval manuscript?

    And that’s a great point about the diversity of the volunteer corps. I’ve seen them and they’re dedicated and do a fabulous job, but it’s 95% Caucasian senior citizens. Not necessarily going to convince LA’s incredibly diverse student population that Greek statues have any relevance.

  4. Actually Sheetal, you
    are wrong: “One should also note that before Cuno came on board, the
    acquisitions funds were cut to hire paid educators so Cuno…” The Getty
    has had paid educators for over twenty years (part of the reason they were able
    to do so much); and had them before they had their first billion, and when the endowment
    was lower than it is now. So there were no new hires at the expense of acquisitions.
    Also, it is wrong to say that the education department hasn’t been hit prior to
    this. Their budget had been cut prior, and when people left, they were not
    allowed to rehire positions.

    Also, Dr. Hein is an amazing, generous scholar–a scholar that
    the Education Dept. hosted and one that the educators were able to benefit from
    as part of their training. Dr. Hein took the time to get to know the educators,
    took time to ask and become involved in some of the programs the department
    offered–something Dr. Cuno has admitted he did not do prior to making this
    decision. He has stated that he has NEVER gone on a tour to see the level of
    quality and expertise that he decided to eliminate.

  5. There has been a great conversation about this issue over at ArtMuseumTeaching.com for the past several days, with some great responses from teachers and museum educators (as well as the same prepared statement from Cuno and his PR staff): http://bit.ly/KFkNSj

    Due to the economic downturn, there seem to be more and more museums relaying on docents and volunteers to facilitate visitor experiences in the galleries. I would argue that we need to pay A LOT more attention to the recruitment of docents (widely expanding who is ‘allowed’ to be a docent) and perhaps more importantly the forms of “training” (I hate that word), preparation, and professional development for docents. If we continue to view docents as “second-class” educators, then their preparation and education becomes “second-class (which is the case currently in so many museums across the country). But if we treat docents as professional educators, we can begin to prepare and develop this corps of volunteers in the skills, philosophies, and emerging strategies of professional gallery teaching — and only then can we expect a more consistently transformative, meaningful experience from volunteer-led tours. I completely agree that given the exceptional education staff who will likely remain at the Getty to work with the docents, they have a unique opportunity to build a 21st-century, pedagogy-focused program to prepare docents as educators and provide a quality, human-centered learning experience for their school-age visitors.

    1. You’re right that we need to work with the circumstances we’ve been given, so to speak (shitty economy &c), yet I think the crucial problem is that while museums can train them to the utmost, ultimately docents are NOT professional educators. And that’s not to discredit or dis them, but they’re just not; they’re volunteers who give some of their time. It’s simply not the same thing, and therein (perhaps?) lies the/a problem.

  6. I wonder what the Getty curators think of the de-emphasis on education. As the experts on the works in the collection, sharing knowledge is central to their work. All the museum curators I’ve met are dedicated to communicating their expertise about art, to as many people as possible. While not all curators may be fans of large, roving school groups most curators I’ve worked with are dying to talk about the artwork, write about it, bring audiences of all ages into the museum and communicate their discoveries and research. If one thinks of education in this broader sense, would curators want to rely solely on volunteers for this work? It is not helpful for museums to see education as a separate department or auxillary function. That reflects a corporate mindset–as if education were a unfortunate public responsibility draining on a museum’s wealth accumulation. What is a museum without education? A warehouse.

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