On Wednesday, June 8, unionized staff at the Whitney Museum of American Art made headlines protesting outside one of the museum’s biggest fundraising events of the year, a gala celebrating the opening of the 2022 Whitney Biennial. About a month later, I accepted a one-day job checking tickets at the museum through a temp agency. In speaking with employees at the museum during my shift, and with four other individuals in the weeks after (three former employees and one current, all of whom have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) I found a workforce rife with near universal disappointment in the museum, with staff complaining of poor communication, low wages, hurried onboarding, and chronic understaffing. Or, as one worker put it in simpler terms: “Just a very negative vibe overall.”
Following city-wide shutdowns as the pandemic hit New York City in 2020, the Whitney rejiggered its hiring structure, focusing on temporary, part-time workers (whose roles might extend for six to nine months) — ostensibly in order to avoid paying furloughed workers in the event of another shutdown. The museum also combined previously separate positions into one. The Whitney’s first line of defense, and customer service, are its visitor experience associates — those who greet you, scan your ticket, and take your coat — and its gallery assistants, who are stationed in the galleries. In a cost-saving measure implemented before anyone interviewed began their tenure, the Whitney collapsed these two positions into a single role. In advance of this year’s Biennial, the museum set to work hiring numerous Visitor Experience and Gallery Assistants, as the new position was called, for temporary jobs lasting from the eve of the Biennial’s opening to September.
“During the orientation I found out they had completely fused together two positions, the visitor member experience and the art gallery assistant position,” said one former employee I spoke to, who applied for the gallery assistant position in January of this year. Upon learning that her role would also include visitor experience duties, she was dismayed. “They didn’t tell us until after we’d been hired. We often joked that we’d been catfished.”
New hires, many holding advanced degrees in the arts or related fields, anticipated that their role as gallery assistants might more closely align with the level of responsibility and prerequisite knowledge that work at a smaller gallery might require — gaining a deeper knowledge of the pieces that filled the galleries. One former employee, who worked at the Whitney for nine months, noted that following her interview, managers at the Whitney called all three of her references, including a grad school professor.
“To be fair, the job was called Visitor and Gallery Assistant [when I applied],” said one former employee. “But they have multiple listings, and the website is very misleading, including the written descriptions. As a gallery assistant in a smaller gallery, you actually do a lot of more meaningful work in terms of actually helping to run the space, whereas I wasn’t. It came as a shock after onboarding — the job we do is just a fancy name for a security guard.”
After initial disappointments with the onboarding process and the realities of the job, workplace morale remained at a low. While the Whitney employees that I spoke to had nothing but kind things to say about their fellow employees, and even the managers directly above them, whom they insisted were also underpaid and overworked, the same could not be said of administrators and supervisors. “There’s not much communication about our jobs, or a feeling that anyone cares about us,” said one worker.
When reached for comment, a museum spokesperson said that “the Whitney Museum is committed to supporting all of its staff and providing a safe and accommodating work environment.”
“The Museum is currently involved in negotiations with the Local 2110 UAW. Together we are making progress on a number of points and focusing on finalizing a contract as soon as possible,” the spokesperson continued. “Compensation and other critical matters are being discussed. As these negotiations progress, the Museum has taken steps and made adjustments when possible in an effort to support our staff.”
Though one employee applied for the Visitor Experience and Gallery Assistant job in part because she saw the Whitney as a bastion for “progressive” values, she described quarterly coffee meetups with Whitney Director Adam Weinberg, billed as a perk of the job, as condescending. “Whenever you try to address real issues you kind of get pat on your head. A lot of my colleagues are starving artists, and we talked about how the area around the museum, the Meatpacking district, is so unaffordable, is it possible to have a discounted meal for the workers? And [Weinberg] said things like, ‘I really feel your pain, I really understand what it feels like to suffer.’ It came up again and again, and you slowly feel so gross about the whole thing.”
The menial work, combined $17/hour pay, no benefits, and a lack of support from higher-ups has reportedly led to severe staff shortages, as workers leave en masse to find better pay. “Every single person who trained me left within three months of my arrival,” said one worker. Another alleges that the turnover rate is over 85%. A few former employees mentioned an unofficial employee Slack channel named, at times, “Staff Byeeenial” and “Quitney,” in which disaffected employees announced their departure to each other.
Yet another former employee, who worked at the museum for just five weeks, said that six of his colleagues quit in the time he was at the museum. Visitor Experience managers too, to whom the associates I spoke to reported directly, seem to be leaving in large numbers. “Before I got hired there were like, six visitor managers. By the first week that I was there, two of them had left and they were down to four, and shortly after that they were down to three, so it was three people doing the job of six people,” said one former employee.
To make up for staff shortages, the Whitney turned to temp agencies to fill in the gaps. While initially supportive of the decision, as it helped to ease the workload, Whitney workers soured on the temps when it was revealed that they were receiving a higher salary: $18/hour instead of $17. “I mean, it’s just one dollar higher,” said one former employee, “But during this process we had so many union fights with the museum, and they wouldn’t even give us a dollar, you know?” The same employee reported that the standard pay raise after a year of work in her position, with “great reviews” from managers, was 51 cents, from $17 an hour to $17.51.
As a result of their lack of training, the museum deemed the temps unprepared to work in the galleries, instead assigning the short-term workers to “easier” positions, like the coat check, where they were able to sit. One former employee interviewed for this article spoke of the Whitney administration’s unwillingness to accommodate those who were made physically uncomfortable by gallery work, which requires employees to stand for their entire shift. The former employee, who has degenerative disc disease, resulting in two herniated discs, claimed she was told that she’d need a doctor’s note for the museum to consider placing a chair in the galleries, and even after she produced one, it was rejected. “They sent me an application to fill out, like a second grader on a field trip,” she said. “It was just a humiliating experience.”
In response to the allegations of unmet accommodations, a Whitney spokesperson reached by Hyperallergic said that “the Whitney Museum of American Art complies with all ADA regulations and has a system in place for all employees to request reasonable accommodations at work. While we cannot comment on any specific employees or cases, the Whitney makes frequent accommodations for staff members.”
While the Whitney union’s fight to boost pay and add benefits for temporary workers isn’t over, for most of the individuals I spoke to, the low pay, “insulting” communication, and unengaging work spelled the end of their journey.
“It became such a mess at the end; I really wish I got out of there sooner,” one former employee said to me. “I have no idea what’s going on there right now because all of my friends have quit. Everyone else has just moved on to better things, and hopefully they’re getting paid what they’re worth. Because the protests happened for a reason, that’s all I’m gonna say.”
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