One after the other, major museums across the country have announced layoffs and furloughs of staffers and freelancers, citing losses from COVID-19 closures. Now, these institutions are facing public pressure from thousands of artists, scholars, and museum workers who argue in two new petitions that letting go of lower-level staff should not be the automatic response to the crisis.
A group named NYC Art Workers circulated a petition last week urging museums to “do everything in [their] power to retain all staff members during the COVID-19 crisis” while sharply criticizing the income disparities between top management and ordinary workers in these institutions. It has garnered more than 1,600 signatures to date.
The anonymous group is a coalition of workers who have been employed by the Dia Art Foundation, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New Museum, Smithsonian Museum, and Studio Museum in Harlem. In an email to Hyperallergic, the workers explained that they have chosen to remain unnamed out of fear of retaliation.
“We have a simple demand: before a single museum worker is laid off, let every mid-six- or seven-figure museum director draw a salary of zero,” the petition starts. “Let our wealthy trustees, who so expertly raise money for council field trips and directors’ first class-flights, fundraise instead for staff retention. Let the conversation around deaccessioning artwork and dipping into endowments start if it means saving jobs.”
Museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MOCA), among others, have announced pay cuts for top management. But the anonymous workers call these changes “empty gestures of financial solidarity” that “[do] nothing to mitigate the devastating effect of job cuts on the livelihoods of those affected and on the cultural landscape.”
The petition also argues that terminating educators, frontline workers, and freelancers will have a devastating impact on the efforts to increase diversity in cultural institutions.
“To eliminate these positions while retaining only senior management lays waste to vital forms of institutional memory, and decimates any gains made in the name of diversity and representation,” the petition says. “It does not go unnoticed that these devastating layoffs disproportionately affect those lacking generational wealth and access, as well as those demanding more of institutional ethics, including union members.”
“What is interesting — albeit not surprising — about museums’ trigger-happy responses to COVID-19 is the irony inherent in the discrepancy between the politics that the art world purports to endorse, and those that constitute its structure,” the workers continue their criticism. “It has never been more apparent that those at the art world’s helm are happy to bask in the afterglow of radical politics in art without ever considering implementing those same politics into institutional practices.”
The workers end their letter with a list of the highest-paid museum directors in the country (as of 2018), which ranges from $500,799 for Dia Art Foundation’s director Jessica Morgan to a salary of more than $3 million for the Met’s former director Thomas P. Campbell (now the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).
In another open letter released last week, nearly one thousand art historians and curators from around the world have expressed their “grave concern about a growing trend of layoffs targeting education staff at major global museums in the name of COVID-19.”
A number of museums, including the MoMA, the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles, and Mass MoCA, recently announced layoffs of educators. Earlier this month, Hyperallergic reported that MoMA had terminated all contracts with its freelance educators; the institution is mentioned in the open letter as offering “no horizon of re-employment” for these employees. An email from the museum’s education department to the laid-off workers explained that “it will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”
The open letter was organized by Janna Graham, a researcher and a curator who currently heads the Bachelor of Arts Curating program at Goldsmiths, University of London, together with other leading art scholars.
“As those most in touch with communities outside of the museum, educators push criticality and innovation,” the open letter reads. “Their work is regularly used to attract donors and supporters to many institutions. That they are first in the line of fire for layoffs, is disconcerting, to say the least.”
Similar to the NYC Art Workers’ petition, the scholars imply a level of hypocrisy on the part of institutions that have been championing diversity in the past few years. “At a moment when museums and galleries claim an interest in their diversification, why do they de-fund the very people and communities made most vulnerable by the current crisis?” they ask.
According to the scholars, the work of educators is especially needed during the pandemic.
“We find this treatment of educators to be a great tragedy in a moment when their skill-sets — meaning-making, public engagement, community care and support — are more essential than ever,” the open letter says.
It continues, “This could be a moment in which to utilise these skills to offer more to communities than virtual museum tours. Instead of retrenching museums into conservative modes of exclusionary content dissemination, a more forward-thinking stance would be to intensify the educational dimension of their offer in this moment of fear, loss and community re-organisation, and to prioritise relationships with their most excluded groups.”