Protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street on Tuesday night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street on Tuesday night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

This evening, as trustees and VIPs arrived at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for its annual “Party in the Garden” gala, they were greeted by dozens of the museum’s staff brandishing signs that read “Modern Art, Ancient Wages” and “MoMA, Don’t Cut Our Healthcare.” The protest, organized by MoMA workers and the United Auto Workers Local 2110, which represents them, came in response to a recent breakdown in contract negotiations after the museum demanded that its staff take on additional healthcare costs. For many employees at the protest, among them curators, librarians, members services workers, graphic designers, and catalogue editors, this was a step too far for an institution flush with cash.

The leaflet that was handed out by MoMA workers at Tuesday night's protest. (click to enlarge)

The leaflet that was handed out by MoMA workers at Tuesday night’s protest. A copy of the leaflet was posted on a women’s bathroom door inside the museum and sent to Hyperallergic by a partygoer. (click to enlarge)

“We’re expressing our collective revulsion for the medical givebacks they’ve put on the table; we want the museum to believe us and to know that we cannot afford what they put on the table,” says Danny Fermon, a MoMA librarian and chairperson of the Local 2110 unit at the museum. “But they’re not just going to believe the committee of activists that’s on the negotiating team only. They’re gonna need to hear it from the members, and the members have shown up tonight in larger numbers than I ever expected in this kind of weather.”

Indeed, a group of about 100 protesters had gathered near the entrance to MoMA’s education and research building on West 54th Street by the time the protest began at 6pm. They handed out flyers to passersby explaining the current contract situation, and chanted slogans including “No Contract, No Peace,” “No Give-Back,” and “Cut Our Healthcare, That’s Not Fair.” The group eventually split in two, one stationed outside the Garden Party’s VIP entrance on 54th Street, the other on 53rd Street facing the entrance to the museum’s film building, where trustees were arriving for the gala. Social reporter Nate Freeman, who was attending the party, told Hyperallergic that the protesters’ chants could be heard very clearly inside the party. “I don’t think MoMA’s very happy about it,” he added.

    Protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street on Tuesday night

Protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street on Tuesday night

The museum has been in negotiations with Local 2110, which represents more than 200 MoMA employees, since early May. There have already been four negotiation sessions, with a fifth due to take place Wednesday morning. Though the workers’ contract, last renegotiated in 2010 without complications, expired on May 20, the museum and union agreed to extend it by 30 days, through June 20. MoMA’s Local 2110 members have not had to strike since 2000, when the main bargaining chips included healthcare coverage, salaries, and threats of layoffs. Now, as the museum prepares for another expansion and its assets and endowment continue to grow — according to the institution’s financial statements for fiscal year 2014, its endowment and investments were worth $838.9 million in June 2014, up from $706.3 million a year earlier — it is demanding workers pay more for healthcare coverage.

Protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art on 54th Street on Tuesday night

Protesters facing the main entrance to MoMA’s Party in the Garden on 54th Street on Tuesday night

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for MoMA sent Hyperallergic the following statement: “The Museum of Modern Art has an outstanding staff. At this time, we are in the process of negotiations with Local 2110, and are optimistic that we will reach a positive outcome for the staff and all concerned.”

“Quite honestly, we have a lot of people working many, many overtime hours, the majority of which are uncompensated, and so 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,” said Victoria Wong, a library assistant at MoMA. “So when they come at us and they say, oh, we’ve been financially strained, we need you guys to make contributions by raising our premiums, raising our deductions, raising everything, it’s kind of insulting. We are a museum, we’re a social, cultural institution, and that ethos should be trickling down in its business practices.”

Protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street on Tuesday night

Protesters outside the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street on Tuesday night

By 8pm, as the last of the partygoers made their way inside the museum, the MoMA employees began to disband, their clothes dampened, but not their spirits.

“I’m hoping that the museum will change its position in bargaining and that they’ll back off these demands for healthcare cuts for members,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110. “People have for years accepted lower wages, knowing that as museum workers, somehow the standard is that you work for less, but relied upon having a good benefits program. And I think it translates into loyalty by the museum for its workers. And breaking contract with them shows disloyalty to their own workforce.”

MoMA employees protesting on Tuesday evening

MoMA employees protesting on Tuesday evening

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

6 replies on “Facing Healthcare Cuts, Museum of Modern Art Staff Protest Outside Fundraising Gala”

  1. This is why museums lose good people everyday. Employees deserve living wages, benefits, and to be treated like they are a valuable part of the museum. Instead we are treated like we should beg to be allowed to work there and we are greedy if we want to have a car that is under 10 years old or live without roommates at 40 years old. Don’t even think of paying off the student loans unless you marry rich.

    Meanwhile hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown around at shiny new buildings, where they spend more than an emplyees salary on a single light fixture or some tile. It is infuriating and cruel.

    1. Shiny new buildings AND shiny giant paychecks for those at the top of museums. Lets not forget that.

      1. Yes, it brings one or two people fame and fortune, while the dozens of people who actually handle and care for the art are treated like garbage, begging for scraps of materials to use to preserve the art and rarely have the tools or space they need. What suffers most is the art, stored in leaky basements, bug filled attics or being shuffled back and forth because no one will invest in the preventive conservation or staff needed to care for it.

  2. Givebacks, they’ve got to be kidding. They have more money than last year and they’ve already admitted that they have an “outstanding staff”.
    When you have an outstanding staff, you INCREASE benefits!

  3. I agree with everything said below, but these “ancient wages” are pretty par for the course in the art world. Is it because so many women work in the cultural sector? I think we have to examine the latent sexism that allows these ridiculous salaries to go unchallenged.

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