The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has initiated a new employment structure that will involve converting all part-time visitor experience positions to full-time ones.
“We are converting our existing, front-facing part-time visitor experience positions into full-time associate positions, which means more pay but also health benefits,” MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn told ARTnews. “We heard our staff, who have been resilient and innovative, and I absolutely want to and have been listening to them. This is a plan of action I believe will help evolve the museum towards being a more equitable institution.”
Typically, visitor experience positions at museums are among the most visible ones to the public. Those positions often have relatively little job security, however, and may come with few to no benefits. These inequities have fueled recent unionization efforts that have included visitor experience employees at institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the New Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Shed, and the now-shuttered Marciano Art Foundation.
The MCA’s move is being made amid concerns about the museum’s reopening. When the museum reopened on July 24 after months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, employees claimed in an open letter that it began welcoming the public again too soon, in a way that they said was potentially unsafe for onsite staff. Front-facing employees are required to be on site during the museum’s reduced hours, without hazard pay; staffers in other departments, from curatorial to collections, go in only when their work cannot be accomplished remotely.
The new staffing model, which will be implemented starting in September, addresses some of the staff’s concerns. But it will also result in a loss of jobs. As it stands, the plan will reduce 28 part-time positions to eight full-time ones. Current employees will have to re-apply for those salaried jobs; those who are not rehired will receive severance.
“I was honestly shocked by this,” Janelle Miller, a visitor experience associate, told ARTnews. “Folks have varying situations. They might not be able to commit to a full-time job. All these nuances that people are dealing with at this time are not being accounted for. And 20 people have to figure out what their lives are going to look like after this point.”
Miller said that the museum had not initiated a dialogue with its workers about the new employment structure. “There’s just been a paternal attitude to the whole situation,” Miller said. “Like they’re saying, ‘We know what’s best for you.’”
The MCA employees’ open letter—signed by more than 80 employees, around a third of the museum’s staff—came on July 16. Signatories said the museum has fostered a workplace culture built on poor, often superficial communication that is most acute between a largely white leadership and a front-facing staff that is majority Black and Brown.
Writing under the collective name MCAccountable, the employees demanded, among other things, that the museum remain closed, claiming that keeping it open would harm the Black and Brown communities that have been hit hardest by Covid-19. Close to 1,000 arts workers have added their names in support, and youth artists at the Hyde Park Art Center have released a letter in solidarity.
“We opened with our staff health as priority number one,” Grynsztejn, the MCA Director, told ARTnews. “Opening along with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, and many others is about rising to meet the needs of our community, to be a space where you can find solace, respite, and be inspired. And we are following the highest CDC as well as Chicago city guidelines.” The museum requires that all visitors wear masks and socially distance in galleries by following marked paths. It has also installed plexiglass dividers at desks and added hand-sanitizing stations.
The MCA, which received a $2 million Paycheck Protection Program loan in April, is one of the rare major U.S. museums that has yet to cut any jobs during the pandemic. Many museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Art Institute of Chicago, have made mass furloughs and layoffs. (The MCA’s new staffing structure will technically result in a “reduction in force” rather than layoffs, a museum spokesperson said.)
But, according to some employees at the museum who spoke with ARTnews, there was a sense that the MCA may have been attempting to terminate workers without officially making layoffs. In June, visitor experience associates began receiving emails about mandatory onsite training. In those messages, which ARTnews reviewed, supervisors noted that, if employees did not respond within 24 hours of a session, or missed it, the museum would consider them to have “resigned voluntarily”—a decision that would make them ineligible for unemployment benefits.
“It sounded off-putting and aggressive,” Zakkiyyah Najeebah, a former visitor experience associate, said. “That language made me and my coworkers feel instantly disposable—that if we didn’t respond in a particular time frame, we will have been considered ‘resigned voluntarily’ as opposed to a furlough or being terminated.” Najeebah sent in her resignation letter on July 9 because of the “lack of care” around communication and the reopening process. “I didn’t feel comfortable working under supervisors who were not being transparent or showing any concern or empathy for employees,” she said.
Another former visitor experience associate, Lisa West, said that communication from managers made many front-facing staff feel like they had to choose between their health and their jobs. “A lot of us need this money right now, and we tried to advocate for at-home work,” she said, adding that part-time employees had kept remote work by writing image descriptions for the museum’s website. “But it was pretty much, ‘No, you need to come onsite or you won’t get paid.’ It felt icky and dismissive of a lot of concerns.” She decided to step down during an onsite training session in July. “I stopped everyone and said, ‘There are things the museum has done that I cannot stand by. You all need to treat BIPOC staff much better. As a Black woman, I can no longer stand by this.’ It was such a hard decision. But a place I loved didn’t love me, and that was hard.”
Asked about the terminology involved in voluntary resignations, Grynsztejn said she was not aware of such language. “The MCA has not ever coerced anyone into any kind of voluntary resignation,” she said. “[Employees] are right that we can definitely improve on communication. We are listening, we are open to dialogue, and we are taking action. I really welcome this opportunity. What a moment of opportunity, as difficult as this is.”
The director has published her own letter, addressed to “friends” of the museum, on the MCA’s website, which urges staff to use existing channels to raise concerns. As one way to keep the conversation going, she is inviting staff to share suggestions in a new series of small group discussions that will be moderated by a racial healing practitioner over Zoom. The museum has also established an anti-racism task force made up of peer-nominated representatives from all departments.
“I am really just experimenting so I can get to where the staff says, ‘This works,’” Grynsztejn said. “This is critical and an urgent part of turning the MCA into an anti-racist organization. I am listening, engaging, and supporting a process for people to raise questions and offer actionable, executable actions. This is what the MCA is known for. A contemporary art museum is a place that expects to have these uncomfortable conversations. So bring it on.”
Some workers have found these kinds of discussions frustrating. “A lot of times we bring up concerns, and they say, ‘You tell us how to fix it,’” Peyton Lynch, a box office associate, said. “That’s not our job. Especially for the BIPOC on our team, they are already putting in so much emotional and physical labor. Not only coming into work but also dealing with people who don’t seem to care about their wellbeing. And those people are turning around and asking them to provide them with solutions to make it better.”
Najeebah, who was nominated to the anti-racism task force before she resigned from her part-time role, declined to participate for those reasons. “As a Black woman, I felt I was being patronized by those trainings,” she said. “I’ve had horrible experiences where white staff at the museum didn’t show any sensitivity to Black or Brown experiences. I felt I would be discounting my personal health and care if I was a part of the task force.”
Current and former employees who wrote the MCAccountability letter said they are still waiting for leadership to directly acknowledge them. “Nobody has reached out to us as a collective to have a candid conversation,” Najeebah said. “We really just want leadership to listen and express empathy when it comes to the concerns of people that don’t have the same privileges that they do.”
September 7 will be the last day of part-time employment for front-facing staff. In the meantime, Miller is deciding whether she wants to apply for one of the eight full-time positions, although not doing so would mean leaving her workplace of five years. “I just don’t feel right about applying to those positions if I know 20 other coworkers who are going to be without a job,” she said.
For West, the museum’s handling of staff’s criticisms has brought about larger questions related to working in institutions. “I need to see actual change, especially with these institutions that claim that they are progressive and all about inclusivity and progress,” she said.“I love the museum, and I love my coworkers. But I also love being a Black woman. And with that comes making decisions that affect me and my community. There comes a point where you just have to stop trying to fight for something that is not fighting for you.”
Update, 8/18/20 5:10 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect the amount of PPP loan money received by the MCA. Additionally, sentences about the employees impacted by the new employment structure and the museum’s communications with workers have been clarified.