W.A.G.E. Issues Open Letter to New Museum About the Institution’s Planned Expansion


The New Museum.


W.A.G.E., the New York organization devoted to ensuring sustainable labor practices at arts institutions, issued an open letter today about the New Museum’s expansion into a neighboring building. Citing concerns about the New Museum’s ability to pay for artists involved in future programming in the additional space, which formerly only housed the museum’s business incubator, New Inc, W.A.G.E. urges the institution to achieve certification that everyone is being paid the right amount.

This is not the first open letter that W.A.G.E. has penned to the New Museum. Previously, in 2010, W.A.G.E. wrote what it called an “intervention,” asking the museum to stop showing so many straight, white, and male artists, and demanding that the museum compensate artists who made work for the museum’s robust event programming. Calling the museum “Dad,” W.A.G.E. wrote, “You present a lot, you support little.” (The organization also asked that the museum remove Gran Fury’s Silence=Death from the bathroom and put it by the front desk, “where it belongs.”)

First reported by the New York Times last Tuesday, the New Museum expansion was announced after the museum had raised $43 million toward an $80 million campaign, which, in addition to funding the renovation of 231 Bowery, will triple the museum’s endowment. A portion of that money came from collector Toby Devan Lewis, who provided the museum with the largest donation in the museum’s history, though director Lisa Phillips would not disclose what Lewis’s gift was, at her request. The expansion is intended to accommodate steadily growing attendance figures, and to provide more room for the staff of Ideas City, the museum’s program that brings together artists, urban planners, and others to discuss rethinking cities.

In the New York Times article, Phillips said she wanted “to do things that museums haven’t done yet or maybe even imagined,” and W.A.G.E. writes in its letter that it considers this an opportunity for the New Museum to become the first W.A.G.E.-certified museum ever. The New Museum could not immediately be reached for a comment.

W.A.G.E.’s letter to the New Museum follows in full below.

Dear New Museum,

You recently announced expansion plans that will double the amount of space you currently occupy on the Bowery and that you have already successfully raised $43 million of the $80 million needed to do it.

Congratulations – that’s big news. It could also be big news for the hundreds of artists who supply the content for your programs each year. After all, if you plan to double in size, surely there will be a significant increase in the number of programs being produced, which would surely provide income to more of the artists upon whose work your existence is predicated.

If you were W.A.G.E. Certified that would certainly be the case, since you’d have committed to paying artists according to minimum standards of compensation.

However, since you have not yet chosen to become W.A.G.E. Certified we recognize that you may not yet have considered how much it would cost to pay for the additional content that this new space is presumably intended to accommodate. Which is why, on the occasion of your recent announcement, we’d like to share with you some projections of our own. We hope these numbers will put in perspective what the cost of your expansion means relative to the cost of paying artists for their work.

If you had been W.A.G.E. Certified in fiscal year 2014 (July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014) and had paid minimum fees according to W.A.G.E. standards, you would have spent a total of about $301,000.

$301,000 is 2.2% of your total operating budget of $13,971,884 in FY 2014.

$301,000 would have paid 184 artists, 16 of whom supplied your exhibitions and 168 of whom provided the content of your public programs.

$301,000 is almost exactly half of the salary of your highest paid employee.

$301,000 is 0.7% of the $43 million you just raised.

New Museum, do you remember the letter we wrote you back in 2010? At the time, we were so concerned that we even attempted an intervention to get you to change.

Today we write to you again with a simple suggestion. We are confident of your openness to it since your director Lisa Phillips was just quoted as saying that the expansion is “about trying to do things that museums haven’t done yet or maybe even imagined.”

We suggest that you imagine becoming the first W.A.G.E. Certified museum. We also suggest that you consider asking collector and philanthropist Toby Devan Lewis, one of the museum’s longtime supporters, who just provided the biggest single donation in the institution’s history, if she would be willing to provide the funds that would make it possible for you to get certified. We believe that as a collector and a philanthropist she is invested in providing direct support to working artists.

We’re here whenever you’re ready.

Most sincerely,
Working Artists and the Greater Economy

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