Yesterday evening, the Whitney Museum in New York joined dozens of cultural institutions around the country in shutting its doors because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But the decision came as a surprise to the organization’s part-time workers, many of whom did not receive notice until the decision was made public around 7:30 p.m.
“There has been no clarity on payment,” said one gallery attendant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “There have been vague promises about compensation for the next few weeks, but it seems like they are playing it pretty safe.”
Museums are facing an unprecedented challenge in responding to the coronavirus with appropriate caution and expediency. What most of their Covid-19 announcements have lacked, however, are assurances that contingent workers will receive wages during the outbreak. The lack of clarity has created a crisis for many of the thousands of freelancers who derive a substantial amount of their income from work in museums as educators, gallery attendants, and visitor services staff.
“The schedule at the Whitney is already written through the rest of the month,” the gallery attendant told ARTnews. “They have a decent idea of what our potential hours and pay, which is minimum wage, would look like. But because the coronavirus was unexpected, lots of people are in an uncomfortable situation to decide on what people deserve.” (A Whitney press representative said that the museum would “continue to support both salaried and hourly staff during this time.”)
Major companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Salesforce, Uber, and Lyft have promised to pay hourly workers whether their services are used or not while their offices are closed nationwide. For many arts organizations that operate on tight budgets, such measures are difficult to implement without long-term planning.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Museum of Art told ARTnews that it will pay all workers during its temporary closure, but has not yet predicted the long-term impact of the crisis. However, sources inside the museum’s membership and visitor experience departments say that they were told that part-time and full-time workers will receive pay for the next two weeks but not thereafter.
Whatever policy the Met adopts could set the agenda for other museums across the country who have followed its lead since the cultural institution announced its plans to close yesterday afternoon. “The Met changed everything,” said a museum executive based in the American Midwest who asked to speak anonymously. “But it would be great for small and medium museums to hear how these closed museums have handled staff issues. We’re here trying to make it through and do the best for our staff, but with little guidance.”
Many New York museums sent statements to ARTnews after this article’s publication saying that they would continue to pay employees. The Frick Collection said it was paying part-time and full-time staff during closure, but did not offer specifics. And a Museum of Modern Art spokesperson said that employees would be paid through March 30, the day that the New York institution is currently set to reopen, adding, “We know this is a challenging time, and the health and well-being of our employees remain our top priorities.”
In a statement, the Guggenheim Museum in New York said that the chaos of the moment would not keep it from paying its employees. “The museum is supporting salaried and hourly employees during this period; we are in a fluid and unprecedented situation and continue to assess circumstances based on available information,” a museum spokesperson said. “The safety and well-being of our employees is of utmost priority.”
“There’s a lot of anxiety about what this all means for workers and their families at the Guggenheim,” said Andres Puerta, a union representative for Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which includes workers at the museum. “We feel like the museum can act like a cultural institution and not a big bank, and that means ensuring that its on-call staff are paid for all the hours of work they were committed to.”
Local 30 also oversees workers at MoMA and MoMA PS1. Robert Wilson, another representative for the union, says that the majority of workers at these museums who are part-time will receive their wages during the closure.
“We are mindful of the contractors who support our work,” said a spokesperson for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “Many of the Gallery’s contracts are subject to federal procurement requirements. Those contractors who are able will continue to work remotely and all other contracts will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of sustaining contract work during this time as much as possible.”