The New Museum
Dean Kaufman The New Museum

Last week, employees at the New Museum in New York—for many decades since its founding by Marcia Tucker the arbiter of downtown cool art, and following the 2007 opening of its SANAA-designed building one of the most architecturally significant landmarks in the city’s cultural landscape—announced a unionization effort. About half of the 150 workers on staff are behind the move to hold an election to affiliate with UAW Local 2110 (the same union that Museum of Modern Art staffers belong to) because, as they wrote in a press release, “we take great pride in the Museum’s legacy and are committed to its success, its health, and its future growth.”

The announcement comes as the New Museum is in the midst of an $85 million capital campaign to raise funds for an OMA-designed expansion, a project that will reportedly be unveiled soon and is scheduled to break ground in 2019. But even as the museum is on the verge adding another glittering jewel to its collection, very little of that largesse appears to be trickling down to the workers themselves. Some staff members I spoke to on background said they couldn’t make ends meet with their museum job alone, and that it is not uncommon for new hires, with graduate degrees in related fields and years of art world experience, to start at a salary of $35,000 a year.

“The salaries and the working conditions mean that only certain people can afford to take these jobs; it perpetuates a workforce that’s primarily upper middle class, and a workforce that’s primarily white,” says Dana Kopel, a senior editor and publications coordinator, who is involved in the unionizing drive. In the early days of moving towards collective bargaining, she says, “We did a salary share, which felt really eye opening and a good political thing to do.”

Low pay is just one issue. The lack of transparency, and the sense that asking for raises might lead to capricious retaliation, was another. “Many of us, when we were trying to negotiate raises or speak to our managers or supervisors about working conditions, oftentimes were met with a lot of difficulty,” says Alicia Graziano, a membership and development associate.

Graziano sees that as inconsistent with the institution’s mission: “The New Museum has always prided itself on being forward-thinking and breaking barriers; we really want to show that not just by the exhibits that we curate, but also in the way we treat our employees.”

Tucker, a Whitney Museum curator, founded the New Museum in 1977 as a direct response to her observation “that new work by living artists was not easily assimilated into the conventional exhibition and collection structure of the traditional art museum.” It has since been lauded for its barrier-breaking shows like “’Bad’ Painting” (1978), curated by Tucker herself, “Let the Record Show…” (1987-88), a response to the AIDS crisis, and the triennial “Younger than Jesus” (2009).

"The salaries and the working conditions mean that only certain people can afford to take these jobs; it perpetuates a workforce that’s primarily upper middle class, and a workforce that’s primarily white."

Natalie Bell, an associate curator who is also part of the union drive, said the next step is a vote, scheduled for January 24 (51% of those who cast ballots need to vote yes for the effort to succeed). For Bell, joining the union would mean “having certain legal protection so that we can raise our concerns without being easily dismissed, or literally let go.” Cultural workers can live in fear of retaliation for seeming ungrateful for their jobs, which they have been encouraged to view as scarce, powerful, and having cachet—working in, say, publications at the New Museum is a pretty cool gig—even if the pay is minimal. “Affordability and sustainability are really big on peoples’ minds,” Bell says. “The cost of living in New York has been steadily rising, and a lot of people feel that museum hasn’t been keeping up with that in a consistent way across the board for everyone.”

It might be reasonable to assume that management is simply out of touch. It can be hard for directors, making director-level salaries, to recall or imagine what it’s like to live on $35,000 a year in New York. Given Marcia Tucker’s emphasis on founding an institution that would be “transparent” and “collaborative”, one might assume management would be delighted to come to the table.

But if there’s anything I learned from being a member of UAW2865 at the University of California at Berkeley, there’s nothing management hates more than collective bargaining. At UC Berkeley, we often received emails from one of our deans telling us that she just wanted us all to be “fully informed” before making a decision to join our own graduate student union. We knew that “we want you to be fully informed” was code for “don’t join a union”—the same way that someone might tell you, after you’ve divulged your plans to go base jumping off the Empire State Building, that you should “just make sure you are fully informed about the height of the building,” which is just another way of saying, “you should obviously not do this.”

So I wasn’t surprised when the New Museum press office sent me this statement about the unionization effort: “A group of employees recently petitioned to form a bargaining unit. We want them to make a fully informed decision.”

How does management plan to “fully inform” their staff? I visited the website of Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan (ANHS), a consulting firm that, according to a press release from union organizers, was retained by museum management to fight back. (When I asked the museum press officer Paul Jackson if ANHS has been retained he said he didn't have “anything to add beyond the initial statement.” I also called ANHS and was told that they “cannot confirm” whether they’re working with the New Museum.) ANHS advertises its services this way: “When employees begin to organize, it strikes fear into the heart of any organization. The good news? You have a powerful labor relations team of experienced union avoidance consultants in your corner … Don’t wait to take back the control you’ve worked so hard to achieve. With top of the line labor relations consulting, it’s hard not to win. Contact our union avoidance consultants today.”

Maida Rosenstein is the president of the UAW Local 2110 and has been working with the New Museum employees. She says that “a bunch of people that [management] has tried to label as supervisors have no supervisory authority,” a classification that would prevent those employees from voting since staff members in supervisory positions are ineligible to cast a ballot. Yet Rosenstein remains optimistic that the unionization effort will succeed, mostly because of how much care museum employees have shown throughout the process. She said that everyone she’s worked with “very strong believers in the New Museum’s mission, particularly as it was founded.” No surprise, then, that they sought out a democratic organization that would allow them to deal with the museum through collective bargaining. As Rosenstein points out, that’s exactly “what’s so shocking about the New Museum’s position, which is really so contrary to what kind of institution they are altogether.”

Eva Hagberg Fisher is a regularly featured columnist. Her views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.