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

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

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Courtney Costello
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4/23 UPDATE: The federal Paycheck Protection Program is stepping in where our leadership and board have not. In an email to staff, the museum has just announced that it is cancelling all planned furloughs until at least June 30 — the reason cited for this change of plan is federal aid granted in the recently passed CARES Act. While this is a temporary reprieve for SFMOMA workers, we know that this simply kicks the can down the road.

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We ask that you do everything in your power to retain all staff members during the COVID-19 crisis. 

To Neal Benezra and members of the Executive Cabinet,

As we approach the May 1 end of pay for furloughed staff, we urge you to take further action on behalf of your employees. The uncertainty of each day brings new and expanding anxieties for us — how will I pay my rent? How will I continue to feed myself, my children? How can I go back to work for an institution that wasted little time in deeming me “non-essential” while, in many cases, a manager or colleague assumes my work while I am furloughed? Our simple requests could be implemented immediately to yield overwhelmingly positive results on our staff’s lives and the culture of the museum going forward:

1.   Let our Director draw a salary of zero for the duration of FY20, as many top executives are doing. Let executive team members draw a salary commensurate with those who are considered “non-essential.” Given that you have long found it appropriate to pay museum staff $20 an hour, we find nothing unreasonable in our request that you temporarily take such a salary during this crisis. We have included figures at the end of this document to demonstrate the massive impact this would have.

2.    Let our trustee leadership — The Fisher Family, Diana Nelson, Chuck Schwab, Mimi Haas, and the dozens of other millionaires and billionaires who sit on our board — employ their proven fundraising ability to generate the sum needed for staff retention, as they did so successfully during the expansion campaign. 

3.    Let us as an institution take advantage of reconsidered deaccession guidelines. Hundreds of artworks in our collection have never once seen the outside of storage, and we are running out of room to store them; we should demonstrate that we do not value these unseen artworks above the lives of our employees.

4.    Let us reexamine our endowment funds and use these to sustain furloughed staff.

We are aware that these points have been or are being discussed among the leadership cabinet and senior staff. As such, we are also asking for transparency in your decision-making process. We think it eminently fair that we be included in these discussions, especially considering that members of the Board were consulted while we were not. These actions not only affect but determine our livelihood, and we urge you to acknowledge our voices before making a decision that will affect over half of the “SFMOMA Family”. 

We have heard that phrase time and time again from those in leadership, but we do not see this bear out in practice. The actions taken by the museum so far prove that you do not understand or believe that we are a family. Janitorial, maintenance, frontline, and unsalaried workers are no less valuable than those whose work happens to take place at a computer screen. If we call ourselves a family, those at the top should do everything in their power to retain a full staff for the entirety of the crisis, including taking pay cuts. 

Neal: in 2018, you earned just shy of $1,000,000, and we assume this salary has increased over the last two years. To cut your salary by 50% is not enough — your annual earnings alone could sustain 30 frontline staff members. The truth of the matter is this: The Director's annual salary of $965,584 has always been a hot-button topic for museum staff and the Bay Area museum community. It is and has always been an unjustifiable obscenity. Where did it come from, and why does it persist? What is all this money for? As Dr. Anthony Fauci sleeplessly works to save the country from the COVID-19, he does so for a third the salary of the Director of SFMOMA.

We cannot say this plainly enough to you and the dozens of millionaires on the SFMOMA Board: this should embarrass you. It should embarrass you that we are paying one individual almost one million dollars, year after inexplicable year, to run an art museum. It should embarrass you that after months of lip service about the importance of the diversity of our staff, our most diverse department by far– in age, socioeconomic status, and race — was decimated overnight to save money for the salaries of those paid six or seven figures. These actions support what we all know to be true: museums perpetuate the culture of exploitation and inaccessibility which keeps the industry run by the white and the independently wealthy.

This should spur you to action.

You will say that select senior staff took pay reductions, and that the situation could have been worse. To that we simply say that staffing decisions could have been better. A salary cut of only 20% to an E Team member would mean that we could refrain from furloughing 3 frontline staff members, or 1 administrator, but this is simply not enough. Paltry reductions 10%, 20%, 30% to somebody making six-figures does nothing to mitigate the devastating effect of full salary loss for the livelihoods of those already living on precariously low wages in the world's most expensive housing market. If 60 of our 72 board members gave $50,000 (an average of .01% of their wealth) and the top earners at the museum took a salary of $2,900/month (the wage of frontline workers), we could pay every single furloughed employee through the end of July.

Our recent strategic plan put forth four values that we do not see being lived out. Nothing about leadership’s actions have been inclusive, brave, passionate, or empathic. We are an institution that claims to take risks by presenting art that challenges the heteropatriarchy, ableism, white supremacy, and capitalism. Yet when given the opportunity, we do not challenge these structures ourselves. 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 to live out what we claim as a museum - that we are many voices in dialogue. 

Now is the time for museums to model a radical future for art and labor. 

Sincerely,

CONCERNED SFMOMA STAFF

+ A liberal estimate of the cost to pay all furloughed employees for the months of May, June, and July: $3,500,000. We have not received any information from leadership about who was furloughed, so this is a high estimate. Top 10 earners taking a wage of $19.80/hour for the months of May, June, and July would save an estimated $825,000. If 60 of the 72 board members gifted the museum $50,000 toward staff salaries EXCLUSIVELY — not to be used for other budget items — we would have an estimated $3,000,000 funds to pay staff.