Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
As museums balance pleasing donors and serving the public, where do employees fit in?
The Museum of Modern Art could easily fill all 125,000 square feet of its gallery space with the scorn it has received over the past year alone. New York City’s mecca of contemporary work has been criticized for press-pass-burning-bad celebrity art exhibitions, an overly conservative curatorial sensibility, and the demolition of the Museum of American Folk Art next door in order to make way for its own metastasizing footprint. Critics have compared visiting the institution, once a champion of radical artists, to visiting a mall during Christmas.
To the institution’s leadership, none of this seems to matter. MoMA’s primary goal, particularly since Glenn D. Lowry came on board as director in 1995, has been growth, furious growth. It has succeeded: As of 2014, the museum’s endowments and investments had grown to $838.9 million, up from $706.3 million in 2013 and way, way up from its pre-recession years. Visitorship has skyrocketed.
Now MoMA’s own employees are rebelling, in response to the institution’s proposal to cut health benefits. Tuesday evening, dozens of the museum’s curatorial, educational, and guest services staff—who are all unionized— picketed outside the museum’s annual “Party in the Garden” fundraising gala, where guests paid anywhere from $225 to $100,000 for admission. The employees’ contract is up for renegotiation, but despite continued fiscal and spatial growth, the museum is asking its workers to pay significantly more for their existing health benefits. According to Gothamist, most museum workers make $50,000 a year or less. Some, like museum shop workers, reportedly make as little as $29,000.
"Nobody works here for the salaries," Jennifer Wolfe, a registrar with a young daughter, told Gothamist. "It's really the benefit package that makes it possible. Most of the families here rely on MoMA healthcare for the entire family."
And for many employees of MoMA, as of any cultural institution, their work is an act of love. “Quite honestly, we have a lot of people working many, many overtime hours, the majority of which are uncompensated,” Victoria Wong, a library assistant at MoMA, told Hyperallergic. “[S]o we already have people who are working more than they’re being paid for, and we do it because we really love this work—nobody gets a job at a museum to become a millionaire.”
The workers distributed notes to party-goers and passers-by, encouraging them to urge Mr. Lowry (via an included email address) to offer a fair contract.
MoMA’s other controversies—the woefully bad exhibits, the Sears-like ambiance, the obsession with celebrities—have often felt like flashpoints for similar trends in museums nationwide. In a country where public funding for museums is scant, how does any large cultural institution find a balance between their need for revenue—huge chunks of which inevitably come from uber-wealthy private donors—and their duty to the public as cultural gatekeepers and educators?
The employee protests call up another, largely overlooked question in the debate over what, and how, a museum should be: In the balance between pleasing donors and serving the public, where do employees hang? The folks who give tours, design marketing materials, think critically about the collections: What are their contributions to these institutions worth?
As of 2007, MoMA employed 815 people. The Art Institute of Chicago employs nearly 500. I used to work as an on-the-floor educator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, among with several hundred other employees. I never met anyone who was there for the pay. But we loved what we did, and good health benefits helped. Our love for our jobs made the exhibits better, the education stronger, the service to visitors more friendly and conscientious.
The times we were miserable, or sick, guests felt it. And MoMA, so will yours.