Dump Educators, Dump Education, Duh

05/24/2012 4:43 PM |

Education is for the birds. Or whatever.
  • Education is for the birds. Or whatever. But the sky stays blue, so who cares?

Some museums are known for vast collections. Some are known for rarefied and priceless collections. Some are known for both.

Others might be known for variable period-specific holdings, curatorial integrity, visitor-friendliness, impressive architectural design, lush layout of grounds, perhaps even strangely intelligent placement of parking lots.

And then there’s the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which is somewhat well known for all such things. What’s more, it’s also long been well known for its educational program employing many highly skilled museum docents—and ostensibly decently paid ones—tasked with providing enriching tours for visitors.

Yet now this latter feature of the museum, according to Hyperallergic and the LA Times, has seen the keen side of the axe of payroll-slimming pecuniary scrutiny. The educational staff will keep only 32 of its 51 employees, and the teaching staff will drop from 17 docents to 5, all of which should save the museum just over $4 million of its annual budget. Meanwhile, other branches of the museum’s payroll haven’t been touched much at all, and the monies saved are earmarked for acquisitions.

It is a museum, after all. And $4 million can purchase, say, about 1/20th of a really famous painting! Maybe even 1/5th of just a relatively famous one! One must consider building the collection!

That, I think, is quite true. It is, in fact, a museum.

The collection is important. Exhibitions are, too.

So, giving someone some benefit of some doubt, perhaps there’s a chance that $4 million can fund an exhibition that is profitable enough for the museum to reinstate its full teaching staff in coming years. Or maybe that much money spent in some arcane, even circum-specious way would ensure a massive endowment in a nearish future. Such circumstances are not exactly unfathomable, for better or worse.

Yet anyway, yes, it’s unfortunate, if not also easily justified (for museum directors), that the educational division will be cut, at least for now. It’s also unfortunate, and not quite so easily justified, that much of its teaching staff will be replaced by volunteer docents—which the museum claims brings them more in line with other institutions of their ilk (all hail pedagogical uniformity, even if that means lowering standards), and which will also allow them to offer more tours (substituting one Q for another Q makes that equation work). As Jillian Steinhaur points out in Hyperallergic, this smacks readily of filling up paid posts with (unpaid, or barely paid) interns:

[B]y 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).

It does indeed sound familiar. But not just with respect to interns working at galleries and as studio assistants, neither merely with respect to interns in many other sorts of workplaces (especially those related to the production, processing and reporting of culture… How curious, no?).

One of the greater unfortunate aspects of all of the above, I feel, is that it sounds precisely like current trends at universities. The economic downturn has justified (to greater and lesser degrees of justifiability) cutting funds for full-time faculty so as to distribute teaching duties to more and more TAs and adjuncts, who are about the closest things universities have (to date, at least) to professorial interns (until, one day, that too, in all pitiful likelihood).

Meanwhile, tuitions are raised, class sizes expand, whole areas of study are cut from budgets, and so on down the very long line of ways in which the integrity of education is increasingly in jeopardy. How much students suffer from all of this is, in a very linear sense, the worst part. They’re the ones the universities are most patently chartered to serve.

This is, of course, a much larger discussion. A whole lot larger, and one to be taken much more seriously. Which is why the Getty’s choice to cut funds from education is, too. Perhaps in the sphere of their operations it is, at best, the most practical and least detrimental option, at least for now. At worst, perhaps it’s because they foresee lesser and lesser financial reason to sustain that arm of their operations, so they’d best start cutting away at the appendage gradually, and forthwith.

Either way, and however institutionally-specific or indirectly, the Getty’s choice is nonetheless indicative of broader, broadly disconcerting trends, from primary education on up: those that encourage dismissing, as financially necessary or pragmatically expedient, the importance of rigor with regard to education overall; and those that dismiss the importance of helping new graduates, at all levels of cap-and-gown status, attain the deserved fruits of their labors, e.g. merely decent jobs.

Alas, yes, it’s quite an unfortunate time of year to share such views on such news.

Which is why it’s quite an important time to do exactly the same.

You can follow Paul D’Agostino on Twitter @postuccio

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