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MoMA Terminates All Museum Educator Contracts

In an email sent this week, the museum told educators “it will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”

Exterior view of The Museum of Modern Art, 53rd Street Entrance Canopy (photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of MoMA)

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City has terminated all contracts with its freelance educators, according to an email from education department heads sent on Monday afternoon. The decision was due to “the unprecedented economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Museum’s closure,” said the email.

Educators who had been scheduled to work over the last two weeks — since the museum announced its temporary closure to contain the virus — will receive a final payment for any work planned through March 30, but “all other future engagements are cancelled and no further payments will be made.”

“I am heartbroken and devastated,” one freelance educator, who asked to remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic. “I’m not sure what a museum is without education, especially a closed museum for which I would argue education is even more crucial.”

“We had already spent hours doing administrative work for April and beyond, such as signing up and booking tours,” she said, adding that MoMA educators are paid $115 per 60-75 minute class. “Because all prep work is included in our teaching rate, we will not be compensated for the work we have already done in preparation for April.”

MoMA’s email ends on a disconcerting note: even when the museum does re-open, “it will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”

In recent weeks, institutions across the nation have issued clarion calls for increased federal funding to meet basic expenses, such as payroll, jeopardized by pandemic-related closures. According to the president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, Laura L. Lott, museums in the US are currently losing at least $33 million per day.

In a statement emailed to Hyperallergic, MoMA said, “With the open-ended closure of the Museum, we’ve faced the painful reality that there will be no new contract assignments to offer to a group of excellent freelance educators who work on an as-needed basis at museums across the city, including MoMA. We are deeply grateful for their past contributions to the Museum. We wish them and their loved ones safety and health in this difficult time.”

MoMA’s email to educators came only days before New York City’s Whitney Museum sent its own freelance education staff a hopeful message: it hopes to launch a new online teaching initiative that could keep them employed.

“The program will serve our community during the COVID-19 crisis and will enable you, our dedicated freelance team, to keep working, even though the museum is closed,” reads the email from two education department heads, Heather Maxson and Dyeemah Simmons.

Other members of the Whitney’s workforce weren’t so fortunate. In an update sent to all staff last night, Whitney director Adam Weinberg
said 76 employees have been laid off, primarily “visitor services staff and temporary employees who have been with the Museum between a few weeks and two years.” The museum expects a shortfall in revenue of at least $7 million.

MoMA is among the world’s wealthiest museums, with an endowment of over a billion per its most recently posted 990 filing, but it is by no means the only institution that has left some workers in the lurch. Last week, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) announced it would lay off 120 of its 165 employees across every department. That museum has a comparatively meager endowment: slightly over $12 million as of 2018. According to WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, MASS MoCA is also particularly dependent on earned income, such as entry fees, putting it in a bind during what will likely be a months-long closure.

A similar fate has met workers at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). A week after laying off 97 part-time staff, the museum said all of its full-time employees would be fully or partially furloughed. MOCA has cited its specific financial circumstances as driving the difficult decision, saying it does not have the backing of a major benefactor or a university, for example.

Cultural workers hired as contractors, such as MoMA’s educators, have been inured to a life of financial instability. Until the new stimulus package was signed into law last week, for instance, freelancers did not qualify for unemployment benefits. It is no surprise that many of the policies implemented to support regular staff during the crisis often leave these precarious workers by the wayside.

Editor’s note 4/6/2020 11:38am EDT: This article has been updated with a quote from MoMA.

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