Open Letter Calling on Museums to Retain Staff During COVID-19 Crisis

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To art museum directors, trustees, board members, and upper management:

We ask that you do everything in your power to retain all staff members during the COVID-19 crisis. Barely three weeks after the first “stay at home” order was issued in New York, furloughs and layoffs began at virtually all of our city’s museums and cultural institutions. We have a simple demand: before a single museum worker is laid off, let every mid-six- or seven-figure museum director draw a salary of zero. Let our wealthy trustees, who so expertly raise money for council field trips and directors’ first class-flights, fundraise instead for staff retention. Let the conversation around deaccessioning artwork and dipping into endowments start if it means saving jobs.

You are responsible to the people you hire. You must continue to pay them a living wage, even—and especially—in times of duress. This includes janitorial, maintenance, and otherwise unsalaried workers. This includes those who cannot do their regular work from home. You are doubly responsible if you rely on, or have relied upon the labor of unpaid interns, perpetuating a cycle of inaccessibility and exploitation that keeps the museum world run predominantly by the white and independently wealthy. Those at the top should do everything in their power to retain a full staff for the entirety of the crisis. 

In New York City alone, art museum directors’ salaries range from upwards of $200,000 to more than $3 million. Yet in this city and across the country, institutional responses to the COVID-19 crisis have resulted in staff cuts, layoffs, and furloughs that overwhelmingly impact the lowest paid workers. Pairing these staffing cuts with empty gestures of financial solidarity—such as tiered salary reductions in the 10–30% range for senior management, as has been implemented at MASS MoCA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and others—does nothing to mitigate the devastating effect of job cuts on the livelihoods of those affected and on the cultural landscape.

Additionally, while the idea of moving “business as usual” to online platforms may be appealing to institutions hoping to remain relevant during this time, it is important to recognize that “business as usual” posits the pursuit and maintenance of capital as more important than human life. In fact, considering persistent calls from disability advocates for museums to consider engagement strategies for multiple audiences across multiple platforms, it is doubly insulting that this crisis has allowed institutions to pat themselves on the back for what has, until recently, been an afterthought. While the art world broadly, and museums specifically, may lionize the rabid accumulation of objects, we assert an alternate, perhaps radical idea: that people are simply more important. 

The precarity of contract, freelance, frontline, and otherwise marginalized labor is evident in the nearly immediate decision to obstruct the livelihoods of the very real human beings in these roles, whose creativity, enthusiasm, and expertise make significant contributions to culture within and without museums. These workers are regularly denied health benefits and job security even in more stable circumstances, and their summary dismissal reveals not only a systemic undervaluing of the expertise of their employees but also a fundamental lack of commitment to their publics. Educators are often a visitor’s first entry into an artwork, thoughtfully creating curricula, facilitating workshops, and otherwise fostering critical dialogue that stretches the limits of artistic discourse. Teaching artists, who make up a large segment of frontline education staff, are tasked with maintaining their own individual practices while supporting the learning of museum visitors, often at multiple institutions. Deeply knowledgeable about the collections and operations, front of house staff are the literal faces of museums, but their work remains some of the most undervalued in both perception and practice. This is especially egregious when we consider the fact that front of house staff were the employees most vulnerable to COVID-19 before museums were forced to close their doors.

It also must not go unmentioned that educators, frontline workers, and freelancers are often the most diverse in terms of race, gender, class, and life experience. These workers often steer urgent discussions related to labor, diversity, equity, access, and inclusion across the field. To eliminate these positions while retaining only senior management lays waste to vital forms of institutional memory, and decimates any gains made in the name of diversity and representation. It does not go unnoticed that these devastating layoffs disproportionately affect those lacking generational wealth and access, as well as those demanding more of institutional ethics, including union members. 

Museum directors, trustees, and upper management: when, eventually, we emerge on the other side of this crisis, how do you want to look back on your response to it? Are your collection and bottom line intact at the expense of large swathes of your staff, whose already precarious livelihoods you have rendered even more so? Or did you prioritize the lives of your workers over the capital of your institutions? A collection of objects alone does not make a museum. Museums are made, maintained, and brought to life by workers. While a liberal call to action might claim that the stakes of the issue at hand lie in the importance or universalism of art, we reject the notion that workers’ rights are contingent on the perceived value of their area of expertise or hierarchy within it. Art workers do not matter because we work in a prestigious field. We are valuable because all workers are valuable, because people are more important than profits.

What is interesting—albeit not surprising—about museums’ trigger-happy responses to COVID-19 is the irony inherent in the discrepancy between the politics that the art world purports to endorse, and those that constitute its structure. It has never been more apparent that those at the art world’s helm are happy to bask in the afterglow of radical politics in art without ever considering implementing those same politics into institutional practices. Institutional critique is fine if it never reverberates beyond the exhibition space. Artists’ critiques of the heteropatriarchy, ableism, white supremacy, and capitalism are acceptable if they turn a profit. Now is the time for institutions to stand behind the values they claim to uphold, and to offer material support to all of their employees, especially the most vulnerable. Now is the time for museums to model a radical future for art and labor. 

The authors of this letter have been affiliated with Dia Art Foundation; Museum of Modern Art, New York; New Museum; Smithsonian Museum; and Studio Museum in Harlem. We ask that allies, artists, and those in power in particular sign and share, as art workers could face retaliation.


NYC Museum directors + salaries as of 2018 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell, $3,017,012
Museum of Modern Art, Glenn Lowry, $2,286,574
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Richard Armstrong, $1,255,989
Whitney Museum of American Art, Adam Weinberg, $1,083,525
Frick Collection, Ian Wardropper, $839, 916
New Museum of Contemporary Art, $764,738
Brooklyn Museum, Anne Pasternak, $597,871
MoMA PS1, Klaus Biesenbach, $553,515
Jewish Museum, Claudia Gould, $549,043
Dia Art Foundation, Jessica Morgan, $500,799