Against Artsploitation

Unionizing the New Museum

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When I started working at the New Museum, I still wanted to be a curator. I’d spent the last two years in a prestigious master’s program for curatorial studies and devoted the summer after graduating to fruitless applications for jobs at museums across the country. The New Museum listing had been for an editor—work I’d done on the side for several years but never considered as a career path. But it was the New Museum: prestigious, cool, the kind of employer you mentioned offhandedly at an opening and were instantly taken more seriously. I’d seen most of their recent exhibitions, even trekking down from upstate on a school night to attend the opening of their recent Triennial. And I liked editing, I reassured myself, plus I’d only stay for a year or two—just long enough to gain experience working in an institution before moving into curatorial work somewhere else. After three interviews in a windowless conference room on the museum’s sixth floor and some reshuffling in the external affairs department, I got the job.

I’d heard rumors, of course, from friends, even an ex-boyfriend, who had worked at the museum. They hated it. Pay was notoriously bad, as was treatment from the higher-ups. But it was a job—with health care, which I needed, and cultural clout, which I still cared about. I showed up for my first day of work in September 2016 on time and bright-eyed. My friends and my ex had all worked in the bookstore, but I’d be upstairs, in the office, where my new colleagues would obviously value the knowledge of contemporary art and attention to detail I’d been hired for.

I spent the next three and a half years editing and proofreading everything from lobby signage and gala invitations to catalogue essays and press releases. Following Donald Trump’s election, the New Museum, which has long positioned itself as a leader in gender parity and equitable representation within the art world, doubled down on their progressive branding. I was editing wall labels for exhibitions like Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon and helping my co-editor, Thea, speed-proofread the catalogue for Songs for Sabotage, the museum’s 2018 Triennial, which brought together works by young artists from around the world under the rubric of sabotage as a radical political strategy. None of them were paid for their work beyond production fees, standard practice at the museum. The first essay of the exhibition’s catalogue, Thea later pointed out, features an epigraph from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons; she read it to me over the phone well after we had both left the museum: “To work today is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to act without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption.” We laughed knowingly: “And that’s literally what management was asking of us.”

There were fifteen, then twenty of us, at the nondescript wine bar where we started meeting after work every other week. The idea of unionizing kept coming up, more seriously each time.

Somehow, the anti-austerity politics of the work we were publishing and exhibiting didn’t apply to those of us working at the museum. Behind the New Museum’s veneer of social justice was rampant exploitation. Salaries were so low that full-time employees worked extra jobs. An hourly rate in visitor services and the bookstore teetered just above minimum wage and hadn’t gone up in several years. The turnover rate was so rapid that after only two years, I was the most senior person in my entire department—including the boss. A culture of toxic competitiveness and secrecy pitted departments against each other, instead of against impossible timelines and chronic understaffing. And the chasm between staff and executive salaries was so vast that an art critic emailed out of the blue just to point it out. Lisa Phillips, the museum’s director, made over $700,000 in 2017, around twenty times as much as some of her employees—yet managers claimed the “small” museum couldn’t afford raises for the rest of us.

Thea used to say she felt like she was starring in a bad cinematic send-up of the contemporary art world. But the work—putting together exhibitions that spoke to the most urgent concerns of our time—felt so important that it didn’t matter if we had to perpetuate those same problems in order to get it all done.

Work from Underneath

“From its beginnings as a one-room office on Hudson Street to the inauguration of its first freestanding building on the Bowery designed by SANAA in 2007, the New Museum continues to be a place of experimentation and a hub of new art and new ideas.” This is a clunky, awkward sentence, but I wasn’t allowed to edit it because, as my boss once told me, the museum had published it before. And who was I to try to rework the museum’s mission—new art, new ideas—a program that demands little beyond novelty?

When curator Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum in 1977, she envisioned a space to support new work by living artists who didn’t have widespread exposure or institutional support. Tucker had been fired from the Whitney Museum of American Art the previous year, following several shows of postminimalist and process art that at the time proved too experimental for the established institution. Beyond simply creating a museum that better supported living artists, she also wanted the museum’s internal structure to be nonhierarchical. When it first opened, there were only a few employees; Tucker paid herself nothing and gave everyone else the same salary. She had everyone rotate between jobs so that everybody understood each other’s work. (Later, she revised this plan to incorporate two salary tiers for part-time and full-time workers.) In a 1972 lecture titled “Women in Museums,” Tucker summarized her vision:

What we are interested in is justice, and not the substitution of one power hierarchy for another. Many of us have been talking about the ideal museum, about a museum of the future—one that is internally structured to eliminate racism, sexism, age discrimination, salary inequities, and unreasonable competition, and one that might allow us to rectify . . . those aspects of the art structure that we find detrimental.

The museum remains dedicated to showcasing work by living and underrepresented artists, though Tucker’s insistence on internal equity has largely been forgotten. In 1999, Lisa Phillips—another former Whitney curator—succeeded Tucker as director. During her tenure, the museum opened a dedicated, starchitect-designed building on the Bowery and expanded to a staff of around 150, putting on three to four cycles of exhibitions per year with an annual budget of around $14 million. An $89 million expansion of the physical museum and its endowment, planned to begin in 2020, is now on hold because of the pandemic. In a contemporary art world that valorizes jet-set exhibition-hopping and perpetual novelty, Phillips is often credited with putting the New Museum on the map.

But these changes have also made the New Museum an institution of entrenched hierarchies. I worked at the back of the fifth-floor office along with the rest of the junior staff in the external affairs department, in a fluorescent-lit forgotten corner where a sympathetic director might pop back occasionally to see whether she had overheard laughter or sobs. Alongside our piles of work, the five of us maintained a lively Slack chat where we shared memes and vented about how our boss made our jobs more difficult. Karen Wong, the museum’s deputy director and the head of external affairs, once rode the elevator five floors and then walked an entire block alongside me and a colleague without acknowledging us.

Usually things were bad; sometimes, they were worse. I remember a two-week period in the middle of winter during which the museum was without water because of construction on the Bowery; employees were forced to walk to the nearby Whole Foods to use the bathroom. My department was permitted to work from home during that time, but most weren’t. Once, the night before the opening of Italian artist Carol Rama’s first New York survey in 2017, I worked a twenty-one-hour day. I stayed at the museum until four-thirty in the morning making wall labels with one other employee; our boss was asleep at home by eleven. New York State didn’t yet mandate paid overtime for our salary thresholds, so we each received a spa gift certificate and a day off to use it.

When I received a promotion after Thea left the museum for grad school, I tried to negotiate my salary. My boss at the time told me the next step would be to speak with Wong. The following week, she asked me why I wanted to speak with Wong, and then, when I told her it was to discuss my salary, replied that Wong could meet with me if I felt it was absolutely necessary. It was, I said. When we finally met, Wong told me my new salary would be set by the CFO and that she had no say in the matter. When I dropped by the CFO’s office to ask him about it, he asked me to come back in an hour or two because he “couldn’t remember what Karen and I decided on.” I’d caught the executives in an obvious lie, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Art Brutal

Despite management’s best intentions, their hypocrisy and blatant disregard galvanized the staff. In March 2018, capitalizing on the urgency of the #MeToo movement, the museum hosted a series of public workshops on sexual harassment in the arts. Staff were encouraged but not required to attend. A few female coworkers and I went to one workshop on how women might find mentorship and negotiate for higher salaries in the art world. Even before it started, the only way we could describe it was rich. Karen Wong, the person who had been less than helpful in my own salary negotiations, who could have been our mentor but met with us no more than three times a year, who determined our below-living-wage salaries, and who had told an employee in her department that if designers had higher salaries at the Met, well then, you could go work at the Met: this person was going to lecture us about how to negotiate raises and find mentors. But we went, despite knowing we’d hate it, just to see what she’d say.

The workshop itself was frustrating but uneventful: Wong and a consultant from the UN who advocated turning poor women into entrepreneurs taught us how to Lean In, and then we broke into discussion groups, where we were asked to come up with ideas for improving working conditions for women in the arts. No one mentioned unions.

Later that week, at a nearby Nepalese restaurant on our lunch break, four of us from external affairs and the museum’s sole curatorial assistant talked shit about our jobs and the workshop, drafting a provisional list of demands. The following week, our numbers grew: seven of us convened in the park behind the museum, including the education assistant and someone from development who knew more about the budget. We realized that our grievances were the same across departments: wages we couldn’t live on, inexperienced or verbally abusive managers, uncompensated overtime, the sense that museum leadership considered us disposable, easy to replace once we each inevitably burned out. We kept talking; we shared our salaries. There were fifteen, then twenty of us, at the nondescript wine bar where we started meeting after work every other week. The idea of unionizing kept coming up, more seriously each time, so I reached out to my friend O.K. Fox, one of the hosts of the podcast Art and Labor. They put me in touch with a union steward from the Museum of Modern Art who in turn put me in touch with Maida Rosenstein, the president of UAW Local 2110, which represents MoMA’s office staff union along with other museum, university, and clerical workers.

In early October 2018, a dozen or so of us headed up Bowery after work to my friends’ apartment on East 9th Street, where we met with Maida and a few other stewards from MoMA. They told us about their union, which was formed in the early 1970s but had recently gone through intensive contract negotiations, and they shared a chart of base salaries that made our jaws drop—in many cases, MoMA staff were making nearly double what New Museum employees in comparable positions earned.

The individualism of the managerial class makes it impossible for them to understand that no one person is behind a union drive.

Emboldened by this meeting, we continued organizing, meeting coworkers to chat at nearby coffee shops and having them sign union support cards. We filed a petition for a union election on January 4, 2019. The backlash from management started almost immediately. On receiving the email informing her of our intent to form a bargaining unit, Lisa Phillips told another, more sympathetic executive, “They can bargain with Marcia Tucker.” Tucker had died of cancer in 2006. A day or two later, following an active shooter training for museum staff, one of my colleagues overheard Phillips’s assistant say to a manager, “I wish we could send [the shooters] after whoever is organizing the union.” Phillips then hired a consulting firm specializing in “union avoidance,” Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, to impede our unionizing effort. At an ANH&S meeting for supervisors, the consultant told everyone that loyalty to management was expected. Executives were said to have speculated in a separate meeting about who was behind the unionization campaign. We heard that Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director, suggested it was the art handlers, some of whom had sent around an open letter with demands five or so years earlier. Karen Wong supposedly suspected me, maybe because of the conversations we’d had about my salary. She wasn’t exactly wrong, only to the extent that the individualism of the managerial class makes it impossible for them to understand that no one person is behind a union drive.

In a mandatory meeting convened by management to tell us why we shouldn’t unionize, Gioni compared unionizing to Brexit, insisting that, like the Brits who voted to “leave,” those of us who would vote for a union didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. He also maintained that “change can be implemented without traumatic measures” like a union. Wong announced that the museum considered a living wage in New York City to be $51,000 per year, and the average salary in the proposed bargaining unit was, according to management’s calculations, $52,000. It’s unclear how they got this number, much higher than what most of my coworkers were making; my best guess is that they included the salaries of a couple of employees who had recently gotten substantial raises after five or so years, even as they simultaneously contested those employees’ eligibility to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. “The conclusion I’m drawing,” Wong said, “is that individual agency with regard to salaries is successful here.”

That was the third of four identical, back-to-back captive-audience meetings, in which executives offered a range of union-busting arguments to a quarter of the museum staff at a time, regardless of their union eligibility, and took turns shedding crocodile tears. “Something must be very broken,” Lisa Phillips lamented in the meeting I attended. Management spoke of how they had failed us and pleaded for another chance to address our concerns. “There’s a much greater chance of those needs being met through collaborative, creative conversation. . . . That’s the path, rather than a union,” we were told. Dialogue and the vague promise of collaboration were offered as substitutes for material change. “Our door is always open,” management insisted. The meetings were each half an hour long, with no time set aside for questions or comments.

We didn’t take the bait. If anything, these meetings solidified distrust of management and commitment to the union. Still, by the time of our vote, on January 24, I hadn’t properly slept or eaten in weeks. My co-organizers and I were running on fumes, solidarity from our colleagues, and the fuel of our own rage. While the votes were counted, a group of us sat in the museum’s basement theater. We were confident, but every no read out by the NLRB rep was still terrifying. In the end, we won overwhelmingly: thirty-eight yeses, eight noes, and ten challenged ballots (including mine) that were never opened because the museum contested our eligibility. I don’t remember much of that evening’s celebrations, beyond hugging and crying and cheap cosmopolitans in our favorite cave-themed bar. I do remember asking a comrade who had worked at the museum for years, rhetorically and with misplaced confidence, “What can they do to me now? I guess just psychological warfare?”

Songs for Saboteurs

It turned out they could do a lot. By January 29, five days after our win, management had instituted a ban on overtime and a salary freeze until we agreed on a contract. They made other changes to the terms and conditions of our employment—which is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act—including denying workers their scheduled raises and promised promotions, and, in the development department, instituting strict new lunch break regulations, which split union members into two groups and assigned each a separate lunch hour. They also cut off our access to Slack. But the attempts to separate employees and keep us from talking to each other were too late.

There I was in Le Pain Quotidien with Hans Haacke, legendary proponent of institutional critique, and he’d just told us he would cross our picket line.

My boss mostly avoided the union in her conversations with my co-editor and fellow union organizer, Lily, and me, opting instead to undermine our work behind the scenes—nitpicking edits in drafts we hadn’t finished; disrupting our workflow. A colleague who had to walk past our boss’s desk to go to the bathroom or the printer remarked that she sometimes saw my personal Twitter page on her computer screen. I was told that Lisa Phillips also looked at the social media accounts of people close to me and gossiped to another executive about my personal life in graphic terms.[*]

Others managers took out their disgust on union supporters personally. The museum’s development manager cornered Lily near the water cooler and castigated her. Another organizer used to come downstairs to cry behind my desk: her boss had stopped speaking to her entirely, making it impossible for her to do her job. She wrote to me recently that she had tried to “smooth things over by acknowledging that we did not agree about the union, but we still work together and I hoped that we could put this behind us. She responded by aggressively berating me in a closed conference room for twenty minutes while I cried. I went to three members of senior management to report this event and none of them did anything.” In the two and a half years since these events, her boss has “been promoted, given a raise, and remains gainfully employed.” My colleague, meanwhile, left the museum shortly after we won the vote, and went on to work for our union.

Our contract negotiations began a little more than two months later, at the end of March 2019. I was elected to the union’s bargaining committee along with five others: Lily; Frankie, the curatorial assistant; Liz from Visitor Services; Jon, an art handler; and Gabe, who worked as an assistant producer for IdeasCity, the museum’s platform for residencies and conferences about art, urbanism, and civic engagement in cities around the world—basically, a gentrification initiative. The museum hired the law firm Proskauer Rose, where attorneys bill around $1,500 an hour, to represent them. Our negotiations took place after work at Proskauer’s office in Times Square, or at the nearby UAW office, because management refused to let us meet at the museum. We requested a space at the museum for union meetings, time off a few times a year for those meetings, and that union delegates be permitted to handle grievances during work. We were told, “Not on the employer’s time and resources.” We put forward proposals for better salaries and health care coverage for everyone, including part-time employees. We were told, “Earned revenues are lower today than they were in 2015. . . . The museum has to evaluate what is proven and responsible.” Why, then, had executive salaries increased by 20 percent over the previous five years? Why, then, were they funding a $89 million expansion plan? Why, then, could they afford a white-shoe law firm whose services, we discovered—thanks to a longstanding executive practice of accidentally leaving important papers in the printer tray—cost the museum $600,000 in 2019 and 2020?

Obviously, we never got any answers, and from March through August of that year, progress was slow and hard-won. Maida Rosenstein told us more than once that the New Museum was one of the more antagonistic employers she had encountered in thirty years of collective bargaining. The COO would pick one of us to stare down across the table, and both he and the museum’s lawyer routinely talked over the female and queer members of our committee. After a rally we held in June, to which a few hundred employees and allies showed up, the tone across the bargaining table softened a bit. But it didn’t help much, and we were forced to consider other, more powerful escalations—including going on strike.

Institutional Complicity

On a warm afternoon in September, I sat at a table in the NoHo Le Pain Quotidien across from Hans Haacke, the godfather of institutional critique, along with two fellow members of the bargaining committee. A major retrospective of Haacke’s work was set to open at the New Museum in October.

 

Courtesy New Museum Union.

It was perfect, in a way: so much of Haacke’s oeuvre is about the ethical failings of art institutions, and I had admired him for a long time because of it. He had been instrumental in forming the Art Workers’ Coalition in the late 1960s, a group of artists and others who came together to pressure New York museums to implement reforms such as ensuring free admission for all, showing more work by Black artists, and allowing all art workers a voice in the museum decision-making processes. The upcoming exhibition would feature more recent projects alongside Haacke’s legendary works of institutional critique, including Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees (1974), which features seven framed black-and-white silkscreen prints listing the Guggenheim’s board members alongside their corporate affiliations, and the role that these corporations play in capitalist exploitation around the world. Also on view would be MoMA Poll. First exhibited at MoMA in 1970, it invited visitors to vote on the question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” Roughly thirty-seven thousand people voted in the initial installation, the majority of them expressing discomfort with Rockefeller’s position. Considering the Rockefeller family’s extensive financial support for MoMA, Haacke’s query had been pointed, and he didn’t show again at the museum for nearly twenty years.

Given Haacke’s efforts to expose the hidden complicity of museums in propping up oppressive organizations and regimes, it wasn’t hard to think of our union campaign as fitting within a lineage of the kind of institutional critique he practiced. We told him we’d unionized in January to improve our conditions at work and had been fighting an uphill battle with museum management ever since. We explained that we hadn’t called a strike vote yet, but if we did, and if it were successful, we were prepared to withhold our labor during the weeks that the installation of his exhibition would take place.

Haacke told us he understood what we were fighting for—as a professor at Cooper Union, he had helped organize the faculty union—and would be happy to support us. Only, it would have to be after the opening of his show because he had people coming from across the country—and even from outside the country—for the exhibition. If we went on strike before or during the opening, he said, sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to help us. I swallowed, blinking back tears. To wait to strike until after the opening would be to sacrifice any leverage we might have with the museum; it would be pointless. Management didn’t care about us, but they did care about their big-name artists and their public image. I couldn’t believe it: there I was in Le Pain Quotidien with Hans Haacke, legendary proponent of institutional critique, and he’d just told us he would cross our picket line.

I stayed because I needed a job, but mostly I stayed because I felt responsible to my colleagues, and to our union.

Ultimately, it didn’t come to that: the threat of a strike alone was enough. After several fourteen-hour bargaining sessions, we finalized a contract that our union voted to ratify. We won major wage increases—an average of 8.2 percent for full-timers and 15.7 percent for part-timers in visitor services and the store in the first year alone—as well as reductions in health care costs, a health care stipend for part-time workers, and improvements to paid time off. Crucially, the contract also gave us legally enforceable workplace rights, including a binding grievance and arbitration procedure.

I stayed at the New Museum long enough to get elected unit chair and start helping my coworkers through the grievance procedure we won in our contract. I stayed because I needed a job, but mostly I stayed because I felt responsible to my colleagues, and to our union. The work took a toll on my well-being, however. I developed IBS and increasingly severe anxiety. My long-term relationship fell apart. I felt fundamentally unsafe—management hated me; I had watched them push out my friends and knew they couldn’t wait to get rid of me, too. I spent most days in an extended fight-or-flight response, dissociating from my feelings in order to do my work and interact with people who, I felt certain, would be relieved if I died. By February, I couldn’t do it anymore: I took a month of mental health leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act because I wasn’t able to go into work without wishing I was dead.

I had only been back for two weeks when the pandemic hit New York and museums across the city started closing. In early April 2020, the New Museum initiated their first round of job cuts: they laid off five union members and furloughed much of our bargaining unit. Management waited until the second round of layoffs, at the end of June, to permanently get rid of the rest of the vocal union supporters: me, the two stewards, and eight other union members. I guess they thought it would seem less like retaliation that way.

A few weeks later, a former colleague texted to say that she’d just been sitting outside at a bar next to the COO and a middle manager in the development department. Through the miraculous combination of her face mask and baseball cap, they hadn’t recognized her as they drank spritzes and shit-talked those of us who had organized and supported the union. We’d ruined our careers, the middle manager said to the exec. And we had been too aggressive. “What did they say about me?” I messaged, and watched the text thread until a reply popped up: “Thank god Dana’s gone.”

Life-Art Work

Despite my newfound distaste for most things art-related—or maybe because of it—I’ve recently been reading about the work of Lee Lozano, a conceptual artist perhaps best known for Dropout Piece, circa 1970, in which she extricated herself from the art world entirely. One year earlier, Lozano had initiated General Strike Piece, a “life-art” work that forbid her from attending art world gatherings “in order to pursue investigation of total personal and public revolution.” These works raise a number of questions: Why did Lozano feel compelled to withdraw from the art world? And why continue to call this withdrawal art? But I’m most concerned with another question: Why did she frame the act as a labor issue, as the title of her 1969 piece implies? In her practice, Lozano was more interested in life than in work. But a general strike of one is impossible: what makes it general is the withholding of labor on a mass scale. Once again, contemporary art insists on reducing everything to the individual.

A career, or a life, structured according to individual benefit is one structured by cruelty—by the assumption that other people are exploitable and disposable.

In her study of Dropout Piece, the critic Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer writes, “While the culture around her voiced opposition by occupying public space, Lozano demonstrated resistance by occupying time—on her own terms—and by ‘complete occupation with self.’” Lehrer-Graiwer describes Lozano’s approach as a “unilateral action” rather than one based in solidarity; the fight was hers, and hers alone. This individualism is inherent to the art world, or the messy networks of social and economic relationships that fall under that heading. From the top down, scarcity—of funding, of jobs, of exhibition slots—fosters competition rather than cooperation. In the absence of much public funding, U.S. museums depend on private donations, which is to say, on the petty whims of particular members of the philanthropic class. This corporatized charity model produces relationships guided predominantly by self-interest. It’s what makes unionizing in this sector so powerful, and also so difficult. Many people at the top of museums and galleries and ArtReview lists have had to prioritize their careers over their lives and the needs of others in order to get there; over time, these decisions come to seem like sacrifices, and the road to conventional success like a struggle for autonomy and fair treatment. But struggle is collective; it has little to do with personal gain. A career, or a life, structured according to individual benefit is one structured by cruelty—by the assumption that other people are exploitable and disposable. To the museum execs who were faux-lamenting over spritzes that those of us in the union had ruined our careers, I wanted to ask: Do you think I give a shit about my art world career?

I’m still dealing with the physical and mental health issues that developed during my time at the New Museum. When, a month after I was laid off, I learned from a press release disguised as a news story that the museum would start providing health care for part-time employees—one of the union’s first proposals in contract negotiations the year before—my legs and hands started shaking. I managed to remove my glasses and put down a cup of water before collapsing on the floor, where I curled up, hyperventilating. It was a victory, and yet it felt like erasure. I remembered our bargaining sessions, the times the museum lawyers told us that even “the most enlightened employers” were not offering health care to part-timers; “it’s too big of a financial risk,” they had said. What made the risk suddenly worthwhile? Management’s desire to make the New Museum seem like the most enlightened employer again? We all knew they would eventually try to rewrite history, would start co-opting the things our union had fought for and won. I just thought it would take a few more years.

At the same time, a museum unionization movement has taken shape across the United States. Workers at the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Tenement Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Maine’s Portland Museum of Art have also voted to join UAW Local 2110, and other unions have formed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and elsewhere. At the time of this writing, the Guggenheim Museum in New York is in the midst of a union election. I’ve received calls and emails from countless museum workers asking for advice about the unionization process, and I’ve watched from afar as these conversations have blossomed into action. Shortly after getting laid off, I started a new job as an organizer for the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, where I support workers at nonprofits who want to unionize.

This museum union movement represents a major shift in the self-conception of workers in museums and the nonprofit sector more broadly, a refusal to accept unsustainable conditions as the trade-off for working in a creative or prestigious field. It’s a powerful rejection of the toxic myth that “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”—and, to an extent, a rejection of the art world’s exceptionalism, the all-too-common assumption that art workers are fundamentally different from workers in other industries and thus don’t need or deserve the rights and benefits that a union provides. While these conversations aren’t new—the slogan “You can’t eat prestige,” emblazoned on posters at MoMA contract rallies and atop recent articles about the New Museum Union, has been in use since the 1970s—the breadth and momentum of recent museum union efforts makes me hopeful that things are finally changing for the better. Beyond the specific victories of contract campaigns, the unionization process makes us all more organized, politicized, and collectively minded art workers. At the New Museum, it gave us what the exhibitions about sabotage and the workshops about mentorship never could: the experience of real solidarity. That’s something that can’t be captured by institutions in their quest for the newest and most significant and progressive-seeming cultural productions. Which isn’t to say they won’t try.

 

I would like to thank Sarah Resnick, who provided invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this essay. Thank you also to Thea and Lily, my comrades and fellow editors, for their suggestions, support, and friendship. My constant love and solidarity to the New Museum Union.


[*] This paragraph has been edited to protect the privacy of those affected.

Dana Kopel is a writer, editor, and union organizer with OPEIU Local 153 in New York. She is the former senior editor and publications coordinator at the New Museum, where she helped organize the New Museum Union-UAW Local 2110.

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