Ever since the Museum of Modern Art’s contract negotiations with members of the United Autoworkers Local 2110 took a very public turn earlier this month, the Instagram account @MoMALocal2110 has been telling the stories of workers who would be affected by the proposed healthcare cuts. As negotiations between the museum and Local 2110 continue — and continue to get nowhere — MoMA’s union members are using Instagram to emphasize the human dimension of the often murky business of contract bargaining and broadcast their appeal beyond the negotiating table to coworkers, colleagues at other institutions, and the public. Their talks with museum administration may be deadlocked, but in the court of public opinion Instagram is giving the MoMA workers a decisive advantage.
“During negotiations it became clear to us that the lives and economic situations of the people the proposed changes were going to affect were not being considered, and that the budget and macro economics were the focus of museum management, which was not a surprise. We felt that we had to promote the people who make MoMA run,” the member of the negotiating committee who started the Instagram account, and who spoke to Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity, said. “People liked the idea of putting faces on the staff, and being heard. Some people were shy about having their photo on social media, or having their photo taken in general, and others were worried about retribution. As the campaign developed and people saw our positive message, they became more eager to participate. Like all projects at MoMA, it has become a collaboration.”
Several MoMA workers now run the account, and many more have had their picture taken and posted online.
“What the Instagram project is doing successfully I think is showing the people who work here and opening up and kind of humanizing the museum in a way that doesn’t involve shouting or handing something to someone on the street,” said Jocelyn Meinhardt, an Associate Writer and Editor in the Department of Advertising and Graphic Design. “Hopefully it’s also showing non-union staff and the deciders of our fates who we are in a rounder way than a hello in an elevator or attendance at a staff meeting does. We really do feel lucky to work in a place with such an amazing collection and history, but that feeling gets heavily tarnished when your bills go up and your salary decreases.”
Increasingly, @MoMALocal2110’s photos have been incorporating works on view at the museum and offering glimpses of back-of-house facilities, creating visual puns that reinforce the connection between the contract negotiations and MoMA’s prized collection. “Francesca, Curatorial Assistant, 2.5 years at MoMA, thinks the title says it all,” reads the caption beneath a photo of the employee standing beside Ed Ruscha’s “OOF” (1962). Accompanying a detail of Kara Walker’s “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart” (1994) is the caption: “Out of pocket cost for birthing babies under current health plan $100, under proposed health care design change $2500.” A photo of museum librarian and Local 2110 chair Danny Fermon alongside Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” (1931) is accompanied by the message: “Danny, Associate Librarian, and Local 2110 chair, 44 years at MoMA, remembers every give back and fights persistently for a fair contract.”
“I don’t know who did it first, but I think many people who work here all felt it was important to have the art incorporated,” Brandi Pomfret, an assistant registrar at MoMA and union member, explained. “We’re not office drones and don’t want the world to see us that way. The majority of our union members work day in and day out directly with the artworks shown at MoMA. We don’t work at the museum because we just wanted an office job, we did it, and continue to do it, for the art.”
At least one non-union MoMA worker has also helped out with the Instagram campaign, seeing in Local 2110’s struggles a precedent for what benefits other museum employees can expect. “I am non-union and I support MoMA local 2110 because anything the union negotiates eventually ends up being applied to the rest of the staff,” the non-union worker, a member of the administrative staff in a curatorial department, said. “They are in a sense negotiating for all of us.”
The Instagram account is the latest in a long string of campaigns critiquing MoMA that have been mounted from within the museum, often at times when union contracts have come up for negotiation (like the Local 2110 strike in 2000). The project’s many precursors will be the subject of the exhibition MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now, which will open on the mezzanine of the museum’s education and research building on July 1.
“Management is essentially seeing us as a line item on a budget, but the Instagram account challenges that perspective and bears witness,” said Bret Taboada, the Assistant to the Chief Curator of Architecture and Design. “It says, ‘These are the people who make your museum run,’ and, ‘These are the people you will betray with your cuts.’ For MoMA to cut our benefits and hold back our wages in 2015 would be a choice, not a necessity; and one hopes management is not past the point of making moral choices.”