Many rejoiced when New York’s museums were allowed to reopen last week, but not everyone was thrilled. As museum operations came to a halt or moved to the virtual sphere during the five-month shutdown, thousands of workers nationwide were laid off or furloughed. Freelancers and contractual workers, including art handlers, educators, and curators, also saw their working hours reduced to zero. With museums resuming their businesses in a new fashion to adapt to the pandemic, employees now find themselves facing a harsh new economic reality.
Before March, Hannah Heller’s typical day as a freelance art educator involved teaching at a museum in the morning, facilitating a teen program mid-day, and then a teacher professional development gig at another institution. The Covid pandemic has reduced her hours to zero. Although museums are opening to the public and Heller is getting contacted for work again, she doesn’t see gaining her normal hours back anytime soon.
Heller believes museums are acting “more out of concern for us and creating opportunities for us to create lesson plans for programs that I’m not sure I’ll actually end up teaching.” Due to complications with school reopening, she wasn’t convinced that teachers would take advantage of the education programs at museums. “Another museum has asked me to come back and do a weekly teen program and after-school program that I was doing the previous year. But I don’t think any schools have signed up.”
Heller also believes racial inequality will become evident as museums reopen, since those working in person will be visitor service staff and security staff who “represent the most racial diversity in our field.”
“It’s just becoming beyond clear whose lives they are willing to put at risk and whose are not.”
Racial and economic inequality has increasingly become a topic of discussion in the museum world. The pay disparity and lack of transparency between leadership and frontline workers have perpetuated a culture of inequality, leading to a wave of museum unionization in New York. Workers at the New Museum, the Tenement Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and MoMA PS1 all voted to unionize in 2019. In May of last year, current and former workers of big cultural institutions disclosed their salary rates anonymously, via an online Google spreadsheet.
Recently, the unions at both the New Museum Union and the Tenement Museum filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the institutions of unfair labor practices while laying off and furloughing workers during the pandemic.
Museum Workers Speak, a group of activist museum workers, have been promoting equity, transparency, trust, and solidarity in museums nationwide since 2015. Since the pandemic started, they have organized a Museum Workers Relief Fund to support those in precarious situations. So far, they have raised over $70,000 and distributed $500 each to many museum workers in need.
One of the beneficiaries of the relief fund, who was not comfortable using her real name and asked to be identified here as Alexa, had worked for seven years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a contractual art educator. Two days before the Met was set to welcome back visitors on August 29, she received an email from the museum informing her that her service would no longer be needed.
“They haven’t had conversations with me about potential grants I could apply for, how the pandemic has affected my income, how I am doing, or how they work to keep us on board,” Alexa said. “It’s just both hurtful and scary to be expendable when I have devoted my career to the Met for the past 7 years and formed what I trusted were lasting relationships, flexible yet reliable income, and professional network,” she further wrote in a text.
To keep herself afloat, Alexa has launched her own virtual museum education business. But it’s far from enough. Like many other museum workers, she is in an industry with fluctuating income and no health benefits.
“This is just more of an occupational and existential question,” Alexa said. “Being in it for seven years, I’m looking for more security. So it does make me think, how can I transform my knowledge base into a new and more secure career.”