How does an art institution know it has been successful? Nowadays the not-for-profit museum world seems to be measuring this based on its numbers: visitors, memberships, retail sales, endowments, the balance sheets at the end of the fiscal year, etc, etc. In the old battle of quality versus quantity, quantity seems to be gaining the upper hand.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is a good example of this, but it is not alone; this is a global trend. Tate Modern in London could be its European counterpart. Following the logic of the corporate world, where bigger is better and “more is more” (to quote Rem Koolhaas), growth seems to have no limits. Right now, MoMA is undertaking its second refurbishment in 15 years, “How much bigger and more powerful will it get?” asks Melissa Smith in her article Bigger Ain’t Better.
MoMA has been expanding and growing since its beginnings, but the nature of the expansion has somehow changed in the past few decades. With the advent of cultural tourism, it is now competing with the entertainment industry, gauging its success by the number of visitors that pass through the door. But it can also be a vicious circle; as writer Judith H. Dobrzynski points out: “The bigger they grow, the more money they require.”
The media has recently been flooded with news of the disagreements in contract negotiations between MoMA and its employees. MoMA is demanding deep cuts in health care benefits and is pushing to keep wages down. Its approximately 280 employees in the P.A.S.T.A./Local 2110 union include curators, educators, visitor assistants, salespeople, registrars, librarians, researchers, designers, photographers, editors, conservators, accountants, and more: basically, the people that make the museum function. Two weeks ago, on the day of the Spring Gala, the staff protested in front of the entrance, when all the patrons, donors, and friends were arriving for dinner. They also started a media campaign on Instagram and a petition page for support ( A few days ago, over a hundred employees went to see the director, Glenn Lowry, to hand him a letter asking him to re-evaluate their position and to continue being a leader in all arenas, especially the social one.
The contract renegotiation comes this year, at the same time as the museum’s newest building extension by Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the site of the since-demolished Folk Art Museum, connecting the whole complex with a residential tower by Jean Nouvel (developed by Hines) that is also under construction. With this, the museum will acquire a few new floors in the tower, expanding some of the galleries built by DS+R.
MoMA contracts are negotiated every five years. In the year 2000, before starting construction on their previous expansion (one of the biggest, with a budget of $ 858 million), the museum experienced a very bitter battle with its employees that only resumed after four-and-a-half months of strikes (supported by artists like Robert Rauschenberg and film director Steven Spielberg), where both sides finally came to an agreement, with significant concessions on both ends.
Among the issues on the table was health care coverage. Despite the Union’s opposition, the museum obtained the right to unilaterally impose changes in coverage (NYT, September 10, 2000). And here we are 15 years later. That contract was the stepping-stone for the changes in health insurance that the museum now wishes to impose. And this is what is at the core of the conflict.
2015 has been the museum’s most economically successful year so far. It has an endowment of $ 1 billion, and Glenn Lowry was given an unprecedented compensation package of nearly $ 3.4 million; yet, it wants to lower employee benefits. Some of the staff make as little as $ 29,000 per year – barely above New York’s poverty line, and the average salary is $ 49,000. Without a secure benefits package or adequate wages, these people cannot continue to make ends meet in New York City.
The museum must also have its reasons to make such a harsh decision, some of which are due to the new expansion, as Mr. Lowry said in Art & Design in January of last year: “This is now a much bigger project than we had envisioned (…) We have to figure out how to cost it out.”
Going back to the concept of success, and what makes a successful company, the fairness with which you treat your employees must necessarily feature. Fairness in a good working environment is also proven to be altogether better for business. The model for a good corporation in the 21st century not only entails being ecological environmentally, but also socially. And more so in a place that, culturally speaking, is the face of a nation.
There is a concept in the labour world called ‘social peace’; these sorts of disagreements between employers and employees erode the social peace of a company. A company will thrive when people feel proud and happy to work there, not when they feel exploited and taken advantage of (even more-so during a period of growth). Growth cannot be achieved at their expense.
It is advisable to arrive at an agreement between the two parts, to restore confidence among workers and regain social peace through collective negotiation and a willingness to understand each other. I don’t think MoMA wants to repeat the ugly experience of the year 2000, which caused so much economic and social damage.
Let’s hope that, this time, the staff and museum all move together into the next chapter, and that the museum finds another means of financing its expansion plans. MoMA’s success depends on the people that make the museum and the visitor’s experience a better one.