Last month, after a yearlong legal battle, MoMA PS1 agreed to settle curator and editor Nikki Columbus’s claim of gender, pregnancy, and caregiver discrimination. Columbus alleged that she was offered the job of performance curator in 2018, but after telling chief curator Peter Eleey that she had just had a baby, she was suddenly informed that she was “not able to perform the job as it is structured,” and the offer was rescinded. Although the institution admitted no wrongdoing, the fact that it settled — and the terms of said settlement — seem proof enough that their conduct would not have held up in court. They have now promised to implement comprehensive changes to MoMA PS1’s workplace policies, including anti-discrimination protections, family and medical leave, nursing mothers’ rights, and financial compensation for Columbus.
This case is a rare discrimination lawsuit against a US art institution, and it involves an extremely powerful museum. Because of these qualities — and the fact that this case could become a landmark for the way in which such issues are negotiated in the artworld in the future — I expected it to receive substantial attention. And yes, the New York Times reported on the story last summer, when the complaint was filed with the NYC Commission on Human Rights, and it published an update in March of this year. But since the landmark settlement was announced, the art press has barely taken note.
One exception, Paddy Johnson, nailed it in the Observer last year: “Her struggles are not unusual, though, they are under-reported … What’s shocking about the Columbus case isn’t just that it’s being talked about, but that anyone decided to do anything about it at all.” And this is the heart of it: although ready to fête examples of diversity and inclusion in front-of-house exhibitions, awards, and programming, art journalists have shown little appetite to dig deeper when the specific form of discrimination is against motherhood. And reporters rarely write about bias when it is challenged behind the scenes, in the staffing of our cultural institutions.
Unsurprisingly, as the suit progressed over the course of the year prior, the colleagues who came forward to publicly support Columbus were few. It wasn’t for lack of empathy, or for the lack of similar discriminatory experiences in other institutions. In the art world, unrealistic expectations surrounding employee time and labor, plus a romanticized view of working in the arts for love rather than money, often equals an employment landscape in which abuse of power comes as no surprise—when you’re pregnant, when you’re interning for free, when you’re negotiating for healthcare, you name it. But the culture of fear around speaking out against either discrimination or the everyday difficulty of having a family life as a professional in the art world is palpable. To be labeled as “difficult” or “outspoken” can be a death knell for a career as a (female) museum professional (to wit, the recent firing of Helen Molesworth and Laura Raicovich’s resignation, among others).
To raise issues of discrimination around the labor of care as someone who identifies as a mother threatens the foreclosure of leadership opportunities such as directorships and chief-curatorships still disproportionality given out to men, regardless of their family status. And this tension between work and family identities, especially for those who identify as women, isn’t just endemic in the art world. As this brilliant recent article for The Cut by Rebecca Traister notes: “The tight knot for women in politics (and perhaps in life) has been, will always be, this: Everything associated with motherhood has been coded as faintly embarrassing and less than — from mom jeans to mommy brain.”
Yet, motherhood and family life are not such taboo topics in the museum gallery, like Mary Kelly, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and — because I’m a design curator — MIT’s inspiring Breastpump Hackathons attest. In fact, it’s not without a little gobsmacking irony that I recall that at the time that Columbus filed her complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights, on display at MoMA was Carmen Winant’s powerful and resonant “My Birth” (2018), a collection of some two thousand found photographs of women in labor, during birth, and immediately postpartum.
I write on and research the topic of designing motherhood and its intersectional, heterogenous history, and know the subject is experiencing a contemporary public renaissance of sorts (a knotty topic for another time). To argue for basic human rights — including the right to a family life, and to paid leave in order to pursue that — seems to be just acceptable when spoken of by artists in the museum galleries, but not the art workers whose labor underpins such projects. To ask for ourselves what we advocate for others through our work seems — strange though it might be to say this about a field of highly intelligent, articulate, and politically liberal people — too difficult, and perhaps too dangerous.
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A few weeks before Columbus’s case was settled, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote in praise of MoMA’s new collection gallery reinstallations, which will be unveiled this fall alongside the Diller Scofidio-designed expansion. He was impressed by the promise of “cross-pollinating” and “experimenting” to include a greater representative set of stories from different art histories in exhibitions that should be regularly updated every three years. Per Cotter, “The advantages of such switchovers are many. Repeat visitors will have fresh art experiences. New histories will get told. Old canons will start to erode.” If this turns out to be true — and I don’t doubt it, given the intellect and passion of the museum’s staff — then it’s truly an exciting prospect. Yet Cotter also pointed out that this will have an effect behind the scenes too, in terms of labor:
MoMA’s organizational mettle will be under stress … I suspect the new schedule will keep MoMA staff up late working nights, which, of course, young people can do, no problem. So with luck, much of the shifting and rethinking will be assigned to junior curators energized by the challenge and filled with 21st century ideas, about, among other things, the ethics of determining the cultural breadth of art to be shown.
I read his comments with a wry smile, as did many of my friends, former or current employees of MoMA, who, like me, were once curatorial assistants (often dubbed “CAs”). Cotter perhaps doesn’t know that MoMA not only refreshes its galleries every few years, but also cycles through its CAs at roughly the same pace. CAs have a maximum of four years on their contracts before they are asked to depart, no chance of promotion realistically offered. Working until midnight on a contingent contract with no clear professional development pathway in the service of uncovering the historical asymmetries and unequal power structures in art canons might be the most “21st century idea” of them all.
When I gently raised this conundrum last year with a senior HR figure (who had come from outside the art world) before I left MoMA, I was counseled not to be nervous about having a kid on the job. I suggested she take a good look around at those at my title and pay grade — the two things that had proven the best contraceptives I’d ever had for me (and my peers). The person who held my position before me, Kate Carmody, shared this feeling, reflecting that, “I deliberately planned my first pregnancy to coincide with my contract at MoMA ending knowing that I would likely not get promoted and that I would lose my healthcare once my contract was terminated.” I remember this clearly as I overlapped with Kate for six months, learning her job while she was out on leave, and working beside her for a month on either side of it. Her story illustrates the precariousness of motherhood across the board in a country without universal healthcare.
[In my last few weeks on the job] I would go in to work, pump bottles in a windowless room in the basement, so I could pay my friend’s sister in cash (who had just graduated from college) exactly what I was making after taxes to feed the pumped milk to my daughter so I didn’t lose my health insurance when I had a newborn.
Opting to take a job outside the museum field has been the fate of every single one of my CA peers who “graduated” from my department, including Kate (I am the only person nuts enough to persist) not because they don’t love the work, mentors, and colleagues, but, in Kate’s words, “if I wanted to have a child in New York City I had to make more money than a museum would ever pay me and I needed to have benefits that were sustainable.”
In other words, while the gallery rehang is contextualized as an “ethical” fresh perspective, it’s built on terribly retrograde human resources policies. Yet this situation gets a thumbs-up from Cotter. He salutes the idea that junior staff can catalyze thinking within old systems, yet fails to register the disconnect when this requires them to be “up late working nights” (i.e., in unpaid overtime). Again, this is “no problem,” because “young people” supposedly don’t have any commitments outside their jobs, including children. Although Columbus asked for no special privileges as a new mother, the revelation that she had an infant must have set off alarm bells to her new employers, who suddenly worried that she was no longer fully exploitable — like Cotter’s, and the museum’s, ideal young people or, as Columbus first appeared, like a 41-year-old queer woman whom they assumed would remain childless.
This disconnect between what diversity looks like in the galleries versus behind the scenes by no means occurs just at MoMA, nor is it confined to the relative privilege of the curatorial ranks. It is endemic in our field, and it’s the way most art institutions run. Look at the New Museum, where the administration hired a union-busting firm after their staff expressed interest in unionizing. (The staff succeeded anyway.) And MoMA’s own staff (I used to be among them) have held their beloved institution to account over the years as loud and proud union members, picketing the museum to retain their healthcare (including maternal care) twice in the last three years.
Columbus herself emphasized the connection between her fight and these labor struggles when she spoke at the Decolonize This Place town hall in January of this year. It’s not an obvious connection to everyone. As Columbus told me,
People see my case as just a “women’s issue” — or even worse, a “mothers’ issue” — and don’t seem to understand that it’s a labor issue as well. MoMA PS1 broke fundamental laws of equal-opportunity employment and didn’t even have necessary, legal policies in place. They had to be sued to follow the law. Basically, MoMA was no better than Walmart” [the subject of a recent class-action lawsuit for pregnancy discrimination].
The imperative, exciting diversity sought by Cotter — and many others— in the galleries of all museums will never be more than lip service until it’s also achieved in a museum’s staff. This is the real ethical crux: We cannot have real equity and diversity in the galleries without first having it in our staff. By offering more equitable paths into junior positions in the art world, and then retaining talent — through essential policies like family leave, promotion for strong work, ending unpaid internships, demonstrated commitment to diversity in hiring, and professional development for the next generation of leaders — we will cultivate people who know how to make diverse collections and exhibitions. The true infrastructure of any institution is its staff, not its building.
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This isn’t a rant against MoMA. I am passionately attached to that museum through wonderful memories, mentors, and respected friends and colleagues (though I’m kissing goodbye to them ever hiring me again by writing this piece). It is long past time for museum leadership, from the directors through the ranks of managers who oversee the direct well-being of all staff on a daily basis (including security, cleaning services, and contracted labor), to publicly support better workplace policies for everyone. And it is long past time to couch this action in the same terms of diversity, inclusion, access, and progressiveness under which many of our institutions are selling exhibitions, programs, and publications to funders and publics.
Within the specific conversation on motherhood in the museum, I know anecdotally that there are already empathic, thoughtful managers who work around the inadequate leave provisions that most US workers suffer under. But we can do better. This means that no matter the state, no matter the context, and no matter the size of your organization, there should be robust paid family leave for a parent that has given birth and, if they are present, their parenting partner, or to both adoptive parents — aka maternity and paternity leave. This should also extend to employees who have other family members who they need to care for, such as sick or aging relatives.
When my mum was dying, I took four weeks away from work to help her do that, but I got to do that because my supervisor was utterly compassionate. And we shouldn’t have to wade through complex math, reams of small print, or reduced salaries when we take leave, either. We also need to demand incentives for staff to take up these benefits at all levels since we know people feel tentative about doing so unless they see their managers doing so too. This will cost something—as a recent New York Times headline on different experiences of gender discrimination in the science field put it, “I Want What My Male Colleague Has, and That Will Cost a Few Million Dollars.” But as the old adage goes, we’re worth it. I’d rather have equitable workplace policies than a shiny new museum building. (And I think, to be honest, it might be possible to have both with some careful planning.) The statistics on positive employee outcomes for advocating this point of view, and for its positive impact on diversity in the workplace, are so convincing that it is impossible to argue with them. Compounding the above, and imperative to note, is that (as this recent article exposed for me) the museum is a “greedy profession,” willing to take hours of our unpaid time. And the more we play into this paradigm (like I certainly do), the more we’re creating an untenable ecosystem for ourselves and our colleagues.
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As Columbus said in her press statement, she stepped up because she wanted to make space for others to push back against these types of institutional behavior, to
encourage more women to come forward publicly with their experiences of discrimination and harassment, with the knowledge that we have the power to fight back against misogyny in the art world and effect change.
If we really, really believe in access, diversity, inclusion, and all the buzzwords of the 21st century art world, then we need to stand up and speak out in support of our colleagues when they fight for these rights.
What does this look like? It’s not a Twitter call out, or an Instagram post. It’s talking about the non-negotiable nature of bringing human resources policies in line with the ethics promoted in the front-of-house programming face to face, with colleagues, managers, donors, directors, and publics. It’s doing this even when people find it uncomfortable, when they don’t want to hear it, and when it might compromise the artworld social interactions that grease the wheels of career advancement. It means writing about these issues in our art press and in our museums too, making programming around it, and demanding structural change in our human resources policies. It means recognizing when we occupy relatively privileged positions that it is incumbent on us to advance others and not only ourselves. There are collective actions — I helped start a Parents and Carers group at MoMA to organize around these issues — and individual ones too. I pledge a percentage of my annual pay to fund a needs-based internship at my current institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
We also need to stand up and speak out in support of ourselves — to know our rights, and not be afraid to demand them, taking advantage of our lawful benefits even if our managers don’t.
It feels scary (I’m even nervous writing this), but we can do this together. The two people quoted in this piece are colleagues who are willing to own this publicly as a conversation about which they think and care deeply. I have benefitted from their thoughts, and those of many others, in writing this whole article. If we can work together on amplifying this topic, then we’ll truly be on our way to formulating an ethics fit for purpose in the contemporary art landscape. If we can’t, I don’t know how much longer I – and many other passionate people – will make the museum field our professional home.
The author acknowledges the admired colleagues and friends who spoke with her and aided her in writing this piece, who, at their request, she is not publicly crediting due to the sensitivity of this topic.
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