Responding to the Getty Cuts: “A Significant Step Backward”

Photo by Skeevo

At the beginning of the month, the J. Paul Getty Trust sadly announced that it was cutting 34 jobs in its museum division, with the education department being the hardest hit with the loss of 19 employees (almost 40% of their staff).  According to the Los Angeles Times, the expected annual savings of $4.3 million to be redirected to art acquisitions.  Volunteer docents are expected to replace these professional museum educators in leading tours at the Getty.

“Everything the museum does cascades from its collection. The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else.”James Cuno, Getty president and chief executive

This news has certainly sparked many emotional, passionate conversations among museum educators over the past few weeks, as well as some serious soul-searching about our profession.  For me (and I know for many others), the Getty has stood as a bastion for museum teaching — one of the major institutions dedicating its educational mission and vision to forwarding the work of professional gallery teaching.

The work of Elliott Kai-Kee and the entire incredible teaching staff at the Getty has lifted the field of museum teaching to a new level over the past several years. Even beyond Elliott’s recent seminal book co-authored with Rika Burnham, the Getty educators’ recent session at NAEA prompted a great discussion about the role of visitor questions in museum teaching and learning.  Getty educators have always done a wonderful job of evaluating and assessing the work they do, providing reports online, and disseminating valuable data about learning in museums.  For more than a decade now, the Getty Research Institute has also brought in exceptional scholars-in-residence for their Museum Guest Scholar program, including Brigid Globensky, Rika Burnham, George Hein, Kim Kanatani, Sarah Schultz, Dana Baldwin, Kathleen Walsh-Piper, Ray Williams, and Marla Schoemaker.  This keen emphasis on museum education and teaching has been truly inspiring.

Last week, the National Art Education Association responded to the Getty cuts with a letter from its president, Robert Sabol, submitted to the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times.  I would recommend that everyone read the letter which has been circulating for the past week.  Upon first reading Sabol’s letter myself, I felt proud to be a museum educator and a member of the National Art Education Association.  I wanted to quickly highlight some excerpts from the letter that I found particularly meaningful for our profession as well as museums in general (and I’ll leave any commentary to readers, who can add their thoughts below):

“The recent decision by President and CEO of the Getty Trust James Cuno to eliminate 19 positions in the Museum Education Department represents a significant step backward as well as a lack of understanding of the public value that museum educators provide.”

“Mr. Cuno’s statement, ‘The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else,’ is out of step with how the museum field and external environment are evolving…. many art museums are shifting from being solely ‘about something to being for somebody….”

“While the collection and preservation of works of art are essential, for museums to remain viable in the future they must also demonstrate their value and relevance to their communities, which is precisely what museum educators are trained to do.”

“Works of art will always be central to the missions and purposes of museums, however, their continued relevance to individuals and contemporary society is dependent upon establishing meaningful connections with the people that view them, something that museum educators are uniquely trained to do.”

I commend Robert Sabol, the entire Board of NAEA, and the Museum Education Division (including the passionate and insightful leadership of Anne Manning) for such a meaningful response to the Getty.  You have affirmed the human-centered nature of the work we do as educators, and framed the immense public value inherent in that work.

I hope that this continues to spark productive conversation and dialogue around this moment, and I invite everyone’s thoughts and reflections below.  I also hope to feature additional posts in the weeks ahead that can take a closer look at the implications this decision has on our field, our profession, and our vision moving forward.


UPDATE: Read Briley Rasmussen’s follow-up post: Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission.

This post is the author’s own and doesn’t represent the Saint Louis Art Museum’s or the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.


17 thoughts on “Responding to the Getty Cuts: “A Significant Step Backward””

  1. Just wanted to add my commendations for a thoughtful and meaningful letter from NAEA. I’ve been participating in some of the conversations around the recent Getty cuts, and at times I’ve been uncomfortable about the implied generalization that volunteers offer a less than valuable service for museum visitors. All of the volunteer tour guides I’ve worked with at art museums have been just as committed, dedicated, professional and knowledgeable as many paid staff, and sometimes even more so. I was so impressed that the NAEA response didn’t deride museum volunteers in its advocation for museum education.

  2. Kris – I couldn’t agree more. I work directly with our docents here (preparation and continuing education), and they include some of the most passionate, professional, and knowledgeable educators I’ve ever encountered. Hosting the National Docent Symposium last year in St. Louis only further solidified my respect and admiration for docent educators. I feel that volunteers have a vital role to play in the educational missions of museums, but at the same time I understand the value of having professional museum education staff that spend their time teaching in the galleries and pushing the profession forward into the future. Both are essential, and I am likewise impressed at the NAEA’s ability to support the role each play in the field of museum education.

  3. I read Mike Murawski’s post regarding the recent changes at the Getty Museum. I want to be sure that you have the facts behind the decision to switch from exclusive reliance on professional gallery teachers to the addition of trained docents.

    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, who will continue to provide the high-quality educational programs and outreach that we currently provide. 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.

    Last year 114,000 students visited the Getty as part of our School Program. Only 39,000 of them experienced guided tours by gallery instructors; 67,000 were self-guided, or experienced the museum and its galleries with minimal assistance from us. An expanded docent teaching corps, carefully selected and expertly trained by our experienced gallery instructors, along with the development of multi-media tours, will enable us to meet our goal of 100% guided tours within the constraints of our budget.

    We are committed to doing more to serve school-age students, especially those who live in the immediate Los Angeles area. Toward this end, the Museum will continue to offer the excellent teacher training programs and online arts curricula for which we are known. The addition of trained docents will allow us to provide all of our school-age visitors with guided visits as well.

    Jim Cuno

  4. I was confused as to how cutting 40% of the excellent education staff would “not reduce our educational programs or the quality of teaching available at the Museum”–especially since these new docents will only have a few months of training before they are teaching in the galleries. So to your points, Kris and Mike, I assume the docents you speak of had much more training?
    I recently spoke to a staff member and it turns out that, based on Mr. Cuno’s cuts to BOTH the education department AND it’s staff, they have had to cut almost all of the professional development programs for teachers. This is a very sad loss since, due to the cuts in LAUSD’s arts education, many of my colleagues have looked to the excellent, high-quality, meaningful experiences we have had with the Getty’s teacher programs (all of which were offered for FREE!) to invigorate our arts education. All of their programs were offered by very committed, educated, experienced professionals. After all, teaching is a profession (I don’t do this as a “hobby” or for the pay!).
    Also, it is hard to swallow that given the billions of money that the Getty has, that Mr. Cuno is trying to get free labor for a job that ought to be done by people who have experience with arts education, child development, and/or art history. If he wants all students to get guided visit (a noble goal), then he should simply hire more museum educators!
    The Getty once offered us so many options and resources for our profession, more than any other museum in LA, and of a caliber that was consistently top-notch. Now, when we needed them the most, most of these wonderful people and the programs are gone. Mr. Cuno states “Toward this end, the Museum will continue to offer the excellent teacher training programs and online arts curricula for which we are known.” So I am not sure if Mr. Cuno is misspeaking, misstating some facts, or simply doesn’t know what the actual results of what his disastrous decision to decimate what was once was a thriving department; one that provided so much for us in the teaching community.

    A devasted,
    Mrs. Martinez
    7th Grade Teacher

  5. Volunteers are indispensable and provide invaluable service to museums. I don’t think anyone disputes this fact. However, the docents at the Getty were not recruited to lead standards-aligned K-12 school visits focused on the art collection. They were recruited and trained to lead tours of the architecture and gardens for adults who are visiting the museum in their leisure time. They do a wonderful job of this. However, Gallery Teachers and Education Specialists who worked at the Getty full-time and participated in continuing education sessions on child development theories, who kept abreast of trends, teaching philosophies, and best practices in museums, and who devoted their schooling and careers to museum education, were the ones who led daily school visit lessons and tours of the collection for the general public, not to mention teacher professional development programs, handling sessions, adult courses, and much, much more.

    Now, new volunteers who actually want to be school visit docents are being hastily recruited in the hopes that they will be able to lead school tours come September, but there is no real plan in place for training these new docents once they are recruited. Everyone should be aware that one important decision has already been made, and that is for the new school visit docents to provide one guided lesson topic to school groups instead of the six that are currently offered by the full-time teaching staff. The one-size-fits-all approach, I guess, as opposed to the personal contact that Gallery Teachers have always made with each classroom teacher who reserved a guided lesson in order to coordinate the stops made inside the galleries so the lesson would align with curricular goals.

    Additionally, high school students will no longer be offered guided lessons, at least not lessons led by a human being. They will instead be offered GettyGuide Multimedia Players (iPods with audio content about the collection) so a disembodied voice can spew facts about works of art on a random-access basis.

    Let me give you an idea of what is really happening. At the Getty Villa alone, four out of five Gallery Teachers, the Education Specialist for Gallery Teaching, the Education Specialist for School and Teacher Programs, and the Manager of Education were all laid off. Obviously, when one considers the volume of work these seven people accomplish on a daily basis, there is no question that the quality of programs is already severely affected, and will continue to diminish! There is no one to supervise the remaining Gallery Teachers while they continue to perform their duties until their layoffs become effective in September, no one to manage school and teacher programs, including a school visit program that operates four days a week and welcomes upwards of 400 visitors per day, and no one to provide direction and leadership for the Villa education division.

    The idea that “This new approach will not reduce our educational programs or the quality of teaching available at the Museum” is absolutely preposterous. I feel sorry for Los Angeles students and teachers especially, whose experiences at the Getty–should they even continue to visit–will be severely diminished due to a completely unnecessary and seemingly unconsidered layoff of many of the finest museum educators in the profession.

  6. Yes the Getty is a nonprofit, but the mission went from using art to make a difference in the community, to “let’s just collect art and make it only engaging to sophisticated people.” The Getty is only valuable if the public decides it is…. Economics 101

  7. Cuno’s vision for the “universal” museum is very 19th century and cringe-worthy. His understanding of education is equally antique. The Getty moves toward building the vault, information rather than active interpretation and a general irrelevancy. I look forward to the next Italian/Eqyptian/Chinese lawsuit…

  8. Wow, Cuno’s comments are so disturbing for a couple of reasons:
    1) His condescending attitude towards education. What a slap in the face to museum educators to say that with only a couple of months of training, a volunteer can do their job. Imagine the uproar if he had made the same suggestion to curators. But just as that talented group of professionals, educators have to have content knowledge, skills, etc. As J Petkau states, his understanding (or perhaps lack of understanding) of education is from a different century.
    2) That he openly admits and embraces the elitist reputation that the Getty has–to actually have a two-tier system of tours?! College, select groups, and VIPs get a tour by an experienced professional and everyone else gets a tour by “hastily recruited” volunteers? Mr. Cuno, ALL of my students are Very Important People! And, given that this may be their only field trip and only time to see an actual work of art, they deserve the very best. I don’t want or need them to look at an electronic device that we can do in the classroom or at home. When they go to the museum I want them to engage with the actual object in front of them! And the Getty educators did a brilliant job, through discussions, activities, etc. to make the experience exciting and memorable for my students.
    3) It is extremely disappointing that he decided to cut the teacher programs. Teachers were some of your most loyal, dedicated audience. If you can image how many students we introduced the Getty, its resources and its artworks during the course of our careers; its in the thousands.

    It is too bad that Mr. Cuno, in the 1 % could make such drastic decisions that can effect the 99% of us that struggle to get by, that struggle to do our jobs with limited resources.

  9. Thanks to everyone, including Jim Cuno, for adding to this rich conversation. Moments like this certainly get us thinking more deeply about issues of teaching and learning in museums. But since the start of the economic downturn, these debates have unfortunately been sparked too often by museums reducing their education staff (the Getty is certainly not the first to go down this path, and probably won’t be the last).

    With 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 (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 gallery teaching. Given the exceptional education staff who will likely remain at the Getty to work with the docents, I think they have a unique opportunity to build a 21st-century, pedagogy-focused program to prepare docents as educators. But only if they ditch traditional models of docent training and work toward something that is learner-centered, teaching-based, and geared to working with those amazing VIP students (including high school students) that so many of you commented about.

  10. Questions for Mr. Cuno: 1. Are the docents going to continue the wonderful Wednesday afternoon for educators at the Villa and Tuesday afternoon for educators at the Center? 2. What will happen with the Summer Workshops at both museums? 3. Will there be any Saturday morning trainings for new teachers to highlight the collection and offer a step-by-step explanation of just how to navigate a “self-guided” lesson, and how to enage how’s students in such? 4. Will docents training make them as knowledgeable as the “laid-off” educators? Or, is it your suggestion (and hope), that each visitor simply rent a headset and hear a pre-recorded message for a select number of art pieces? Would that save the Getty Trust enough money to purchase additional art treasures?

    I, myself, know there is NO COMPARISON, to the educator led tour and the “canned” one. Or, does your title “entitle” you to a tour that an educator would not be privy too? Do you believe that a teacher at any grade level can gather the material necessary to make the visit valuable and engaging to their students? If you do, then I suggest you ask the many teachers, of which I am one, how many hours, they spent putting together a self-guided tour that students appreciated and learned from. Not only did I spend hours on the packets I assembled, but the classroom hours spent in previewing, explaining and teaching the pieces we would view are not taken into account by you. A successful museum visit is one that the teacher prepares the students for weeks in advance, so when they view the art piece, they have some knowledge of it, and understand some of its’ meaning historically. Otherewise, it is akin to trying to find the “right dress” in a department store filled with racks of clothes. The more you look, the more blurred your perception. In the end, you usually don’t buy anything. Is this what you want for the students of today, and the public of tomorrow?????

    I mean, Mr. Cuno, educators in this country have so little status, why not just add to it by laying-off your “educators” so the educators in public and private schools, have little, if any, guidelines, NO overview, as well as NO in depth knowledge of the how, why and wherefore of the art viewed. Thank you for helping me and other educators see that we are the plebians in your musueum mission. Remember what happened to the Roman Empire.

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