At last night’s annual Party in the Garden gala at the Museum of Modern Art—a major fundraising event for the institution, which this year was in honor of artists Richard Serra and Kara Walker, “with a special salute to David Rockefeller on his 100th birthday”—members of the museum’s staff gathered outside of both MoMA entrances, chanting: “Modern art, ancient wages!” The protesters included curators, as well as educators, visitor assistants, salespeople, registrars, librarians, researchers, designers, photographers, conservators, accountants, and others, who said MoMA had proposed dramatic cuts to their health care coverage during recent contract negotiations.
“A lot of us here are professionals,” said Luke Baker, a curatorial assistant in the museum’s department of architecture and design. “We’ve got master’s degrees. You know, we’re here for the long haul. We really want to make sure that working here, and giving as much as we give to the museum, that this is a tenable position for us and that we’re able to stay here. And that means being able to afford living in New York City. Supporting our families. Paying our student loans. Things of that nature. It’s all one thing. Wages, healthcare. It’s all connected for us. It’s all about being able to stay in our jobs.”
Baker said the average salary of the bargaining union—which includes 286 museum staff members—was $49,000. The lower end of the pay grade among the group makes $29,000 a year. “If you’re working on that salary, you can’t afford healthcare and support a family,” Baker said. “It’s just not gonna happen. 286 people—that’s a lot of people, who are in charge of keeping this museum running, seven days a week. We wouldn’t be out here if we felt like the museum was taking adequate steps to take care of its workers.”
The crowd started chanting, “Share the wealth, protect our health!”
Madia Rosenstein, a UAW representative from local 2110, to which the protesters belong, was wearing a cardboard sign that said “POWER TO THE PEOPLE.” She told me, “Nobody here earns a lot of money, and they’re not at the museum to earn a lot of money, but they really count on the benefits. So for the museum to ask for these severe cuts is an act of disloyalty by the museum management towards its own workers. The top echelon of the museum is very well compensated. There’s a very stark contrast here between the glossy glamour of the Museum of Modern Art and the people within its walls doing the work.”
The last reported salary for Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director since 1995, was $1.8 million. During Lowry’s directorship, admission prices have gone up from $8 to $25, but, since going on a seven-day-a-week schedule in 2013, MoMA has seen a rise in its attendance numbers as well. In July 2014, the museum reported that 3.04 million people had visited MoMA in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, just short of the museum’s highest attendance ever, 3.1 million visitors in 2010, according to The New York Times. MoMA is also in the midst of a major expansion.
A press release from local 2110 states that “the Museum has proposed to substantially increase the amount workers must pay toward health care premiums for family coverage and impose new costs for maintenance of individual coverage.” A books specialist at MoMA told me that the former health plan has no deductible and “decent copays.” The new plan, he said, adds a deductible and increases the copay “drastically.”
“I have a family,” he said. “I have a one-and-a-half-year-old son. The top 30 staff members here, they can’t even consider what cost of living means. They don’t even understand what cost of living is.”
Asked for comment, MoMA’s press director sent the following statement by email: “The Museum of Modern Art has an outstanding staff. At this time, we are in the process of negotiations with Local 2110, and are optimistic that we will reach a positive outcome for the staff and all concerned.”
Meanwhile, at the party, MoMA staff not involved in the protests did their best to police the situation. Press were given credentials that had “RED CARPET” printed on them, and asked to stay by the entrance to interview arrivals to the gala, though the chants from the protesters were easily heard inside.