New York’s MoMA Expands, But Seeks to Cut Back on Staff Benefits

Allie_Caulfield / New York 012 Museum of Modern Art

Jul 27, 2018; Artsy

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is gearing up for a $450 million renovation and expansion, its second major overhaul in two decades, reports Benjamin Sutton for Artsy. Work began in February 2016 and is expected to be completed in 2019. Gallery space will grow from 135,000 to 175,000 square feet. Public space at the museum will also increase from 87,000 to 109,000 square feet.

But many MoMA workers—more than 250 of whom have worked without a contract since May 20—are not pleased. At the end of May, the members of United Auto Workers’ Local 2110, which represents the largest number of MoMA employees, staged a protest titled “Party on the Pavement”—a play on the museum’s “Party at the Garden” annual fundraiser. One sign read “Modern Art, Ancient Wages.”

The average salary for the editors, educators, accountants, curators, designers, salespeople, and librarians that comprise Local 2110 is less than $50,000.

Contract negotiations, writes Sutton, have stalled, “over issues such as raises for longtime employees, healthcare costs, and job security for entry-level curators.” The union is moving closer to calling a strike, which would be its first at the museum since 2000, another time when the museum was seeking to expand while cutting benefits to its workforce. As Sutton writes, “The dispute is not the first of its kind, either for MoMA or for any number of major institutions that spend lavishly on expansions while refusing to meet their workers’ demands.”

“Unfortunately, it’s very consistent with what [the museum] did in 2000, and it’s very consistent with what you see happening in private universities and wealthy private nonprofits,” says Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, which also represents workers at Barnard College, Columbia University, and New York University. “You see Columbia University and NYU buying up an enormous amount of land, raising billions of dollars to fund their expansions, while being extremely tight-fisted with their workers…It’s really infuriating to see that happen again at MoMA.”

Not surprisingly, the expansion has increased demands on MoMA staff, exacerbating staffing shortages and pushing existing workers to work longer hours, according to museum employees. Rosenstein adds that many workers are ineligible for overtime. The union wants MoMA to hire more non-temporary workers, while also increasing job security for entry-level curatorial staff, who, Sutton notes, “can currently be dismissed without cause, according to Local 2110.”

“[The junior curators] work extremely hard, they don’t get any overtime, they work long hours in the slim hope that they’ll get promoted, and then MoMA boots them out,” says Rosenstein. “It’s a very exploitative situation.”

Each Friday, Sutton reports, “union members have handed out flyers to visitors waiting in line to enter the museum during its weekly admission-free hours.”

“The public has been wonderfully receptive to the leafleters outside the Museum, and during events—often stopping to talk with the employees who distribute the leaflets,” says Danny Fermon, a librarian who has worked at MoMA since 1971 and is on the bargaining committee.

Regarding the broader dispute, Sutton explains,

The main contract items at issue…include the museum’s attempts to do away with or reduce step increases. This system, introduced more than two decades ago, ensures that employees are making a certain percentage more than the minimum salary for their title. Another benefit at stake is the museum’s system of healthcare reimbursement accounts, which are currently available to all of the lowest-paid employees in the union, half of the mid-range union employees, and none of those making over $75,000, according to Local 2110’s most recent contract; the union would like to see those accounts made available to all union workers.

According to a museum spokesperson, negotiations are progressing: “We’re confident we’ll arrive at an amicable resolution, as we have during prior negotiations with Local 2110 and our four other unions.”

Local 2110 members last negotiated a contract in 2015. That round also involved working without a contract, but it was settled without a strike. In 2000, however, workers did strike for 134 days, with the strike “finally coming to an end at 3 a.m. on a September morning following a 15-hour bargaining session,” writes Sutton.

Negotiations between the union local and MoMA will resume next week.—Steve Dubb