The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago plans on converting its part-time visitor experience associate positions to full-time roles, shrinking the team from 28 to just eight employees, starting in September. The restructuring is meant to offer part-time workers, whose employment is notoriously precarious at most institutions, benefits such as health insurance and increased pay as the museum welcomes visitors again after months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, several workers are speaking out against the move, which will result in the disappearance of 20 part-time jobs. Current employees in the department will have to re-apply for the full-time positions, competing for the jobs with their former colleagues. (Those who are not hired in the new salaried roles will receive severance pay.)
In an open letter to director Madeleine Grynsztejn dated July 16, a week before the museum reopened to the public, a coalition of staff at the museum expressed concerns over the safety of workers returning to work, particularly for front-facing, part-time staff — many of whom are BIPOC. They requested that the museum remain closed until those workers felt safe returning to work on-site, citing a re-entry survey of employees that found half of the respondents did not feel comfortable doing so, and asked that leadership address racial inequities in the institution.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities the hardest, both locally and nationally — a racist outcome effectuated by policies exactly like those the MCA is practicing,” it read. “It is precisely these workers, in these predominantly BIPOC departments, who will be required to work on-site in public-facing roles in order to financially support themselves.”
The letter received more than 956 signatures from current and former staff as well as visitors to the museum. Peyton Lynch, one of its authors and a full-time Box Office Associate at the MCA who works closely with the part-time associates, told Hyperallergic that he found the restructuring “disheartening.”
“This isn’t really what we asked for,” he said. “A lot of the part-time staff don’t necessarily want to be full-time, they have other commitments. What they were asking for was more support. Health benefits are great, but couldn’t those be offered to part-time staff as well?”
Lynch also echoed some workers’ disappointment that the decision was taken without wider input from staff.
“Nobody I’ve spoken to had any previous knowledge about this decision, or at least was not asked for input,” he added. “I think if this had been brought to us for feedback, it would have been less upsetting. We heard about it from a reporter before we even heard about it from leadership.”
The MCA has not implemented furloughs or layoffs, unlike many other art institutions across the US facing financial losses due to the pandemic. The museum received a $2 million loan through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was created to help small businesses retain staff.
At the outset of Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, the MCA faced scrutiny for its ties to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). The museum said it did not have any current contracts with the law enforcement agency and pledged not to contract CPD’s services in the future until the department makes significant reforms. However, members of the Teen Creative Agency (TCA), the museum’s youth development program, saw an opportunity to address “other injustices” at the organization, claiming that the program itself was composed primarily of BIPOC who were not properly compensated.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Grynsztejn said, “We care deeply about all of our employees and their well-being during this trying time. This commitment led us to continue to pay all of our employees, including part-time staff, during the four-month museum closure. Taking care of our staff is a top priority at the MCA, and we’ve managed to avoid making any layoffs or cutting positions or pay, to date. Our decision to restructure the Visitor Experience department was developed after listening to suggestions from staff, who wanted secure positions with improved pay and benefits.”
“While the part-time positions are unfortunately being reduced as part of the move to full-time, those employees, who worked anywhere from 3 to 28 hours a week, are being offered severance. At a time when 3 out of 10 museums are closing nationwide and we are witnessing massive furloughs and layoffs, the MCA has chosen to invest in the long-term welfare of our Visitor Experience staff, replacing job insecurity with job security. Full-time jobs also make for a stronger runway to professional advancement for an emergent generation of museum workers who deserve increased opportunities. A full-time Visitor Experience staff also anticipates a foreseeable future where Covid-19 remains with us, making health benefits all the more necessary. We are at the same time implementing more communication in our internal structure to support two-way dialogue to better listen to our employees, including open forums and discussions. We support people sharing their concerns and are actively looking for ways to support staff. Our society is facing many challenges right now, and we are fully committed to continuing our work to help make meaningful, positive social change toward fighting racism and creating equity inside and outside our museum walls.”