New York City police officers standing in front of the Museum of Modern Art in New York during a May 14, 2021 protest action. (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has increased the presence of armed police officers on its premises in response to last weekend’s horrific stabbing incident, which left two of its employees wounded.

In an all-staff meeting on Monday, March 14, the museum’s leadership informed workers that it has renewed a contract for paid security details with the New York Police Department (NYPD) to back up MoMA’s guards, who are unarmed. The decision may be seen as controversial to some museum workers who had pushed management to end a previous contract with the NYPD in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020. The museum also hired details from a private security company, according to several people who attended the meeting.

MoMA has not returned Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment.

The enhanced security measures come after a former museum member identified as 60-year-old Gary Cabana attacked and wounded two front desk employees at the museum’s Film Center entrance on March 12. Security footage showed the suspect leaping over the reception desk and stabbing the workers — a man and a woman, both aged 24 — multiple times in the back, collarbone, and neck. Bellevue Hospital in Midtown Manhattan said both workers were in stable condition and would recover from their injuries.

After three days on the run, Cabana was apprehended at a bus station in Philadelphia. According to John Miller, NYPD’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, the suspect was “upset” that he was denied entry to the museum after his membership was revoked due to two past incidents “involving disorderly conduct.” Friends and acquaintances of Cabana said that his mental health has deteriorated since he lost his job as a Broadway usher during the pandemic. In a now-removed post on Facebook, he alluded to living with a bipolar disorder.

MoMA workers who spoke with Hyperallergic reported an atmosphere of fear and trepidation at the museum in the aftermath of the attack. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because employees were asked by leadership not to give interviews to the press.

“We’re shocked at what happened, but we’re not entirely surprised,” said one worker who regularly interfaces with visitors. “We constantly deal with members who throw tantrums, especially at the film department.”

The worker said that colleagues have previously expressed safety concerns about the film reception desk, saying it leads to a “cul-de-sac” and could leave workers trapped in the event of an attack. This scenario became a terrifying reality last week, as security footage showed the assaulted workers trapped behind the enclosed, curving desk. The museum has not responded to this allegation; the desk was relocated further inside the building after the attack.

Workers at MoMA’s Visitor Engagement department (or Visitor Services) count among the museum’s most vulnerable, lowest-paid employees. The starting annual salary for a full-time Guest Assistant at MoMA is $36,131. After a year, a worker in the department becomes a Guest Specialist at $41,570. Salaries include benefits and tend to rise over the years based on seniority, largely thanks to years of contract negotiations between the museum and UAW Local 2110, the union representing MoMA workers and colleagues at other New York museums.

“Wages are higher at MoMA because we’ve been unionized for longer,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110, in an email to Hyperallergic. “Rates at museums that are non-union or have just unionized are much lower. At the Guggenheim and Whitney, for example, people start at $17-$18 an hour, are usually part-time, and don’t have health benefits.”

Rosenstein added that the union is currently talking to workers at MoMA about what security measures they would like to see in light of the attack. “It’s been very traumatic, especially for those who work in Visitor Services and Membership,” she said.

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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...