The New Museum in New York (Photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“We knew it was only a matter of time before the @newmuseum
started coopting our union wins for their PR,” the New Museum Union wrote in a tweet yesterday, August 6, “but this is appalling.”

The tweet was in response to the New Museum’s announcement yesterday that it will recall 23 workers who have been furloughed since March. Last month, the museum laid off 18 of its furloughed workers. The rehired workers will return to work on August 17 in preparation for a potential fall reopening, the museum said.

In an email to staff on Tuesday, which the museum shared with Hyperallergic, the New Museum’s director Lisa Phillips wrote, “These unprecedented times have called for tough decisions, and losing staff has been the most difficult.” 

She added, “Through June we lost $2.9M in income. We cut $1.8M in expenses, still leaving a $1.1M shortfall. This year, we’ve reduced our operation and budget by 30% and are projecting an additional significant shortfall.”

In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, union representatives said they are pleased that the museum has brought back furloughed employees, “as we’ve encouraged them to do in several effects bargaining meetings over the past few months,” but emphasized that the museum has laid off 25 employees since the start of the pandemic. These workers include 16 bargaining unit members and several security guards, according to union representatives.

Now that the museum has dumped so many union supporters — our whole steward committee was laid off, our whole bargaining committee laid off or furloughed — they can go back to pretending they’re some progressive institution,” the union tweeted. “Let us remind you all again that they’re not.”

“The layoffs disproportionately targeted unionized and other low-paid workers at the Museum,” the group told Hyperallergic.

Of the 23 returning workers, 14 are union members. They occupy positions in various departments across the museum, including security and maintenance, visitor services, education, external affairs, and the museum’s store.

The union says that about 45 of its members who are part-time art handlers and contract registrars and are “effectively still furloughed” because no new exhibitions are being mounted.

In response, a spokesperson for the New Museum told Hyperallergic: “Art handlers and contract registrars were not furloughed; they are part-time, seasonal workers who are called in for shifts when exhibitions change (which typically occurs three times per year). Since the New Museum remains closed and there have been no exhibition changes, they have not been called in.”

The union says that only 22 of its 84 members are currently employed by the museum.

Phillips’s email to staff promised to extend health benefits to part-time workers as “part of a move towards greater equity.”

The union has fought for extended health benefits during long and strained contract negotiations with the museum’s management.

“That was one of the first economic proposals we gave them in negotiations, and they told us we were delusional for even suggesting it,” the union tweeted. “This is gaslighting.”

Phillips also announced that pay cuts for senior management, which were announced in April — 30% of her salary and 10%-20% for other executives — will continue through next year.

To that, the union said: “Let us remind you that as they parade around their executive pay cuts, Lisa Phillips is still making at least $500,000 while 25 people now have no income and no health insurance during a pandemic.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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