News

As the Art World Shuts Down Over COVID-19, Uncertainty Plagues Hourly Workers

Part-time and freelance cultural workers are asking themselves the same question: will we be paid?

Museum educators, most of whom are hired as independent contractors or part-time workers, may be among the most affected by the COVID-19-related shutdowns. (photo by John Picken/Flickr)

“There it is: Guggenheim won’t pay anyone past the 29th for work they have cancelled,” tweeted Bryan Cook, one of the Guggenheim Museum’s recently unionized workers, on Tuesday night. 

It’s a direly familiar fate for many cultural workers across the country. As the need to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus has become an urgent reality in the United States over the past weeks, museums, institutions, and other arts venues have shuttered one after the other. Employees who were already among the most vulnerable even during normal programming — museum educators, visitor services staff, security guards, art handlers, and other hourly, part-time, or freelance workers — are now collectively asking themselves the same question: will we be paid?

Two days after Bryan’s tweet, a spokesperson for the Guggenheim said in an email to Hyperallergic that “full-time and part-time regular employees, both salaried and hourly” would be compensated through April 12. What the Guggenheim designates “on call” staff (defined by the museum as “casual hour employees who work when called in for specific projects”) however, will only be paid for work scheduled through March 29. 

The museum has not yet clarified when this policy was made known to all staff. “The last word we’ve had from them about any of this was last Friday [March 13], which feels like an eternity,” said Cook.   

Hyperallergic spoke with numerous cultural workers, many of whom asked to remain anonymous to avoid risking their increasingly tenuous employment. Uncertainty and fear were common themes across the board. Museum educators, who in many cases not only lead school group tours but also develop family outreach programs and spearhead institutional partnerships with the city’s education department, are doubly impacted; their jobs depend on public schools remaining open. In New York City, classrooms across its 1,800 schools may remain empty, potentially through the end of the school year.

In the case of the Guggenheim, Cook added, “A museum that has a board worth billions of dollars and an endowment worth $85 million refusing to continue paying workers in a literal time of crisis is a moral failure, and embarrassing.”

The Guggenheim Union took to Twitter to denounce the institution’s decision: “We urge Board members and the admin to reconsider their position of devastating workers.”

The museum will continue to evaluate compensation beyond that date as the situation develops,” the museum said in its emailed statement to Hyperallergic. “The well-being of our employees remains an institutional priority.”

A screenshot of an email sent by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s education department to staff and obtained by Hyperallergic reads, “As you’ve likely seen, NYC Public Schools are closed until (at least) April 20, which means that we won’t be able to offer any tours until after that date. As far as I know, the Museum will be only compensating you for scheduled tours through March 31. I don’t have any additional information beyond that at this time.”

For one teaching artist and museum educator who collaborates with the Whitney and a number of institutions, including the Storm King Arts Center, the Studio Museum, the Queens Museum, Groundswell Arts, and Recess Arts, the majority of her work happens during the school year.

“Most of these partnerships are yearlong, from October to May; some may be slightly shorter. The only two institutions that are honoring my full partnership contracts are the Queens Museum and Groundswell,” she told Hyperallergic. “All other institutions are only paying for canceled classes till the end of March. Our time was booked months in advance, with our schedules already planned till the end of June. Which means we won’t be compensated after March.”

The common practice of hiring museum educators as freelancers or contractors, a step below even part-time employment, adds to the precariousness of their condition.

“The vast majority of New York City’s institutions employ their museum educators as contractors, meaning we’re not eligible for unemployment benefits,” confirmed one teaching artist, who says she makes slightly under $40,000 a year from various museum jobs. “We’re just a line item in the ‘programming’ budget.”

Some museum workers argue that being compensated for only a few weeks’ worth of work, rather than the entirety of their agreed upon pay period, falls short of what institutions should offer, especially in a time of crisis. “The Whitney isn’t broke. And tours have been budgeted through June as school year. So the money is there,” said another freelance educator who occasionally works for the Whitney and preferred to remain anonymous.

A Whitney spokesperson told Hyperallergic, “Please be assured that we will continue to support both salaried and hourly staff during this time.”

Employees of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County published an open letter on Tuesday expressing concern over inconsistencies in the institution’s coronavirus policies, including asking some of its staff to continue reporting to work despite the museum’s closure. “By remaining open in this way, the museum is placing the onus on staff to take the days off themselves, rather than supporting them financially,” reads the letter.

While some of the policies they mention have been rescinded, “changes have only taken place after staff repeatedly expressed concerns to Human Resources personnel,” the letter says. “They reflect a consistent pattern of response to the health risks raised by COVID-19 on the part of the museum.” The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was not available for immediate comment.

All of California’s 21 major museums, including the Getty, the Hammer Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have been closed. In a survey of 11 Los Angeles institutions by the Los Angeles Times, all but one, the Museum of Tolerance, said they had not laid off part-time staff and would pay them through the end of March.

The financial havoc wreaked by COVID-19 on the cultural sector extends far beyond museums. McNally Jackson, the independent bookstore in New York City, has laid off nearly 80 of its staff, reports Gothamist. In a tweet, the company said the measures were taken due to “a massive, unprecedented loss in revenue” and adds that “this is the most difficult moment the bookstore has ever faced.”

Although McNally Jackson says it will maintain staff health insurance as long as possible and insists its layoffs are temporary, some are appalled by the unsparing measure. On Twitter, the nonprofit organization Preserve Our Brooklyn Neighborhoods shared a screenshot apparently listing bookstore owner Sarah McNally’s recent $2.5 million purchase of a new home.

McNally Jackson has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

Employees of Quad Cinema, the multiplex theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village owned by real estate magnate and billionaire Charles S. Cohen, are still waiting to hear whether they will be compensated for their lost time. The cinema was one of the last to close, initially cutting showtimes and reducing capacity by 50% and then yielding to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent order to shutter movie theaters, nightclubs, and concert venues.

Speaking anonymously with Hyperallergic, an employee at the Quad said the theater has yet to communicate with its part-time workers — who make up most of its staff — about compensation.A meeting between the theater’s general manager and Charles Cohen scheduled to take place on Wednesday was abruptly canceled, leaving workers in the dark. Quad Cinema has not replied to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.

Many institutions contacted by Hyperallergic expressed a desire to support staff while recognizing the challenges of implementing concrete policies in a rapidly changing, unprecedented health and economic crisis. A spokesperson for the New York Public Library told Hyperallergic that it intends to continue paying part-time employees, but acknowledged, “We are in uncharted territory that will require constant discussion with various stakeholders, including our partners in City government.”

In a letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Leaders Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, and Charles Schumer, leaders of museums across the US asked Congress to allocate at least $4 billion to nonprofit museums. The letter, dated yesterday, March 18, specifically highlights institutions’ fears that the pandemic’s effects on the cultural sector will displace thousands of workers, adding that museums support 726,000 jobs nationwide. 

For some institutions, the financial impact of the crisis will be felt profoundly, in the form of layoffs, budget cuts, and sharply reduced programming.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art may be one of them. In a bleak prognostic of what might await institutions around the world, the New York Times reported that the museum projects total losses of $100 million and a closure that could extend through July.

In an e-mail to Hyperallergic, the Met confirmed both full-time and part-time staff would be paid through April 4, the initially predicted re-opening date. But from April through July, reports the New York Times, the museum plans to evaluate furloughs, layoffs, and voluntary retirements as well as a lower cost structure in anticipation of limited attendance once it does re-open.

Artist and educator Camilo Godoy, who works at several different institutions, believes the coronavirus pandemic “will unmask the moral compass of museum leaders.”

“During this global emergency, what is the contingency budget of museums and cultural institutions? I’ve made a living for the last five years as an educator at multiple major museums in New York,” said Godoy in an interview with Hyperallergic. “If museums and schools remain closed for the remaining of the school year, museum educators must be compensated with the budget that was already allocated for the school year. It is a time to pay everybody, especially hourly and freelance staff. It is a time to deepen relationships, experiment, and heal.”

Editor’s note 3/19/2020 9:52pm EDT: This article has been updated with comment from the Guggenheim Museum.

comments (0)