Portland Art Museum Disbands its Docent Program, Sparking Controversy

The Portland Art Museum (PAM) is replacing its docents with paid learning guides from local colleges, reported local newspaper Willamette Week on Wednesday.

The news was announced to the 175 docents via email on August 22. With the subject line “Future Directions,” the museum explained it was ending its 40-year-old docent council structure to bring in paid learning guides recruited from local colleges. The decision was made with the help of a committee.

PAM’s pilot group includes four paid learning guides who started training last week and will give tours to students two days per week. The museum is recruiting from Portland Community College, Portland State University, and Lewis & Clark College.

Former docents, who previously lead museum tours and aided with continuing education, can be part of a new volunteer program where they can serve as educators, greeters, and coat-check helpers.

“The message is really clear that the services of a group of older, retired educators are no longer needed,” retired art teacher and former PAM docent Paulla Dacklin told Willamette Week.

The docent council, says PAM’s executive director and chief curator Brian Ferriso, is “evolving to meet the needs of the community.”

This change comes as the institution continues the construction of its $110 million Mark Rothko Pavilion. Both the construction and the pandemic have given PAM opportunities to “reset and reevaluate,” director of learning and community partnerships Stephanie Parrish said in a statement.

PAM is not the first museum, however, to make controversial changes to its docent program. In December, the Oakland Museum of California disbanded its program to diversify its volunteer staff. In fall 2021, the Art Institute of Chicago faced backlash for replacing its docents with younger, more diverse paid educators.