Whitney workers protested for fair wages during a gala last night, May 17. (all photos Jasmine Liu/Hyperallergic)

Attendees of a gala last evening, May 17 at the Whitney Museum of American Art — the New York institution’s principal fundraising event of the year — could not steer to the entrance without bypassing a clamorous crowd of about 80 protesters, who broke the event’s veneer of civility and imbued the barren West Chelsea corridor with the aura of a sporting match. Workers at the museum rang bells, chanted, and cheered when taxi drivers and chauffeurs who just dropped off their employers honked in support of them, holding signs that read “Honk for a Fair Contract” and “Union Strong.” 

Artificial grass hedges lined the glass exterior of the lobby — presumably shielding the evening’s exclusive guests from the agitation outside. Above the front doors, in the Whitney’s recognizable Helvetica font, Rayyane Tabet’s installation for the Whitney Biennial asked, “What is the rule of law?”

The protesters — which included Whitney workers and allies from the Guggenheim Museum, Film at Lincoln Center, HarperCollins, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the New Museum — were expressing their frustration with museum leadership’s latest offer in ongoing bargaining talks, which several workers called “insulting” and a “lowball offer.” Maida Rosenstein, president of Local 2110 UAW, the union that represents Whitney workers as of last June, called it “a slap in the face.”

“They’re proposing lower wages than they’ve ever given even before people organized,” Rosenstein said in an interview with Hyperallergic. The offer, which was delivered on April 19 — “three months after we gave them a wage offer,” Rosenstein noted — put forward a 2.5% increase in wages, followed by a 2% annual increase for the next three years. “Inflation’s at 8.3%,” Rosenstein pointed out, adding that pay rates as they stand now are unacceptably low. A majority of workers at the Whitney make under $20 per hour.

Workers pointed out the hypocrisy of the low wages paid at the Whitney, even as artworks are treated with care.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a Whitney spokesperson said that the museum “has been negotiating in good faith since voluntarily welcoming Local 2110 last summer.”

“In April, the Whitney submitted a proposal and is awaiting a response,” the spokesperson added. “The Whitney has longstanding and productive working relationships with the Museum’s other unions, and we look forward to continuing our discussions with Local 2110 and reaching a resolution.”

Rosenstein said that members of the facilities team were asked to put up the hedges in advance of the event. “They all know the significance of it, and they’re all frustrated,” she said. “This whole event would not be happening without workers putting it together. Yet they’re acting like we’re persona non grata and should be kept out of sight.”

While she spoke, patrons dressed in expensive spring patterns feet away hustled past rabble-rousers who were in their path.

Admission to the Whitney costs more than what a majority of workers at the museum make hourly, one sign said.

In addition to low wages, many positions, especially those that are front-of-house, have become more precarious. Derrick Charles, who has worked in visitor and member services at the Whitney for over three years, was recategorized as a temporary worker when the museum reopened during the pandemic even though he was permanent before. Now, he has fewer benefits and less vacation time.

“We want clarification. What is a temporary worker? How can someone who has been here for three years be considered temporary?” Charles asked. A member of the bargaining committee, he communicated disappointment that the union has been negotiating since November yet still has no contract.

“We are making poverty wages. We have a large amount of turnover. A lot of the people who work at this museum love working here,” he told Hyperallergic. “We just want to be treated fairly. We know they have the money and the resources to support their staff, just like we support them.”

Jessica Pepe, an associate registrar who has worked at the museum for over a decade, echoed Charles’s sentiment. “Morale is at an all-time low,” Pepe said. “People love it here, but it’s just not tenable. They’re basically telling us to go elsewhere to find better work.”

“Do you realize what a bagel costs on an ‘early Sunday morning’?” read one worker’s sign.

Ramsay Kolber, a curatorial research associate who denounced “appallingly low wages” and “a lack of job security,” additionally criticized leadership for providing lackluster opportunities for career advancement and accused the museum of stonewalling in ongoing negotiations. When union members brought up the need for resources for professional development, leadership said that the union would have to match the museum’s contribution. “They want us to pay them to give us professional development, which benefits us,” Kolber said.

Kolber also decried leadership for excluding the “top two tiers” of positions, which are the highest paid and the most senior ones including associate curators and senior exhibition coordinators, from the union — despite the fact that they overwhelmingly voted to join. She also said that no one from leadership has met them across the table, opting instead to send representatives from human resources and outside counsel, which she called “highly unusual.”

Over the deafening noise of phrases repeatedly chanted like “union-busting,” “shut it down,” and “poverty wages,” Kolber emphasized that all of these were reasons why “it was important to have a wall-to-wall union and to build solidarity across all departments, especially with our front-of-house staff that are tremendously vulnerable.”

“American art, American labor,” a sign read.

The protest was an amped-up second round of an action that took place at the end of March during the VIP opening of the Whitney Biennial, which was quieter and consisted mainly of workers leafletting “Whitney Museum Union!” flyers to those who paused to take them.

“There was a huge push to just turn out and say, ‘we need to be there for ourselves, and in solidarity with all of the front-of-house and facilities staff who had to work the event.’ It was really important to have a strong turnout tonight,” Zoe Tippl, exhibition coordinator at the Whitney, told Hyperallergic.

“It’s still low morale, but this is giving us something to strive for,” Charles said.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.