The New Museum's Union Resistance Contradicts Its Radical Inception

In the late 1970s, curator Marcia Tucker was fed up with a corporate attitude that pervaded New York art museums, even the Whitney where she worked. “I felt like I was working for a cutthroat Fortune 500 company instead of a museum,” she wrote in her autobiography A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World. “I started to hear things like, ‘Museums are businesses and should be run as such.’”

It was those sorts of comments that led Tucker, who died in 2006, to create the New Museum in 1977, after she was fired from the Whitney. Unlike many art museums in the city at the time, Tucker envisioned the New Museum as a place constantly in movement. Where other museums were weighed down by expensive collections and chained to a historical canon, she was primarily interested in contemporary artists; she initially toyed with the idea of de-accessioning the New Museum’s collection (which, aside from a few items, it still doesn’t own) every decade to keep the museum “young.”

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It was this ethos that almost immediately brought notoriety to the New Museum and Tucker’s curating in its early years, for instance exhibiting “bad paintings” that threw traditional ideas of beauty out the window and championing a diverse group of artists like Ana Mendieta, Félix González-Torres, and David Wojnarowicz while simultaneously cementing their legacies. “Her ability to communicate to her board that a moment’s present will be the future’s past gained her the freedom to programme controversial materials, some of which of course became important in retrospect,” historian Nizan Shaked wrote of her tenure.

But the New Museum’s radical approach to what a museum could be did not end with what Tucker put on the walls. “I wanted to redefine the concept of the museum altogether, to turn it upside down and do all the risky things I had wanted to do but couldn’t at the Whitney,” Tucker wrote in her autobiography. “I still believed that the personal was the political, and I wanted to live and work according to my principles.” Collaboration, above all, was key to Tucker’s ideas of what makes a museum great, whether it be through the creation of her “Minority Dialogues” series where rising artists of color met with museum staffers to discuss their concerns over representation or peer-reviewing decisions at all levels of the museum.

“For all those years I spent at the New Museum, my so-called leadership skills were always under attack both from inside and outside,” Tucker said in a 2006 interview. “However with time I realized that what others call a lack of leadership can really be a different kind of leadership, one based not on hierarchy and power, but on empowerment - communication, collaboration, listening, and consensus building. That’s my idea of responsibility.”

It’s inarguably that level of responsibility, one of consensus building and collaboration, that current New Museum employees are asking of the institution in 2019. In January employees at the museum voted to unionize, citing concerns over fair pay and protection as the museum undergoes an expansion. In response the New Museum hired the Kentucky-based law firm Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, which boasts union avoidance training and a “union-free future” on its site. The New Museum told the NYT that they are no longer working with the firm and in a statement to Jezebel, a spokesperson clarified that the New Museum “engaged ANHS for a four-day consultation period (January 8 to 11, 2019), to help inform us about the organizing process.”

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“They told us things like, ‘Unions create divisions that weren’t there before between employees,’ and ‘Unions build walls where there were none,’” editor at the New Museum Lily Bartle told Jacobin. Meanwhile, employees say they can not live on the salaries some are making, even as the New Museum moves forward with an $85 million expansion and nearly a decade ago it was reported that director Lisa Phillips made over $600,000 a year.

“There’s a huge discrepancy even in unionized museums between the executive-level and the staff who work there,” says Maida Rosenstein, president of union UAW Local 2110 which represents the New Museum and MoMA’s union drives, the latter museum having been unionized since 1999. “You see [director] Glenn Lowry at the Museum of Modern Art making a salary that’s in the three million dollar range and yet salaries at the bottom are very low.”

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“If you look at a place like the New Museum, which just organized, those employees are basically part-time, contingent labor, with insecure hours, earning at the minimum wage or a little bit above,” Rosenstein says. Rosenstein found that the lowest salary for full-time employees represented by the union comes in at $40,000, while part-time employees represented by the union can be paid as low as $15,050.

There’s also a wide discrepancy in the art world when it comes to the subversive shows museums want to run and the actual politics happening beyond the galleries among administrators. It is in a museum’s best interest to wear a veil of progressiveness but then underpay its workers or balk at committing to hiring diversity. The New Museum arguably has more to answer for considering that, as their union also notes, to not accept a union is out of line with the museum’s very mission.

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“A lot of us who’ve been involved with the unionization campaign see the union as a continuation of that legacy and that vision, getting the museum back on track and embodying the values that it claims to have,” Bartle said. After staffers announced they were unionizing, more than 50 artists and theorists including Andrea Fraser, Hannah Black, and the Guerilla Girls signed an open letter standing in solidarity with the organizers. “Such behavior goes against everything that the Museum has historically stood for—that is, equity, diversity, and a commitment to institutional responsibility,” the letter read. Rosenstein says the New Museum is now currently employing the law firm Proskauer Rose, which the Wall Street Journal reported as charging as high as $1,475 an hour in 2016.

“The New Museum is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated staff that believes in the vital importance of art and culture,” the New Museum said in a statement. “We have begun negotiating a contract with UAW Local 2110 and look forward to a productive resolution that benefits the Museum, its staff, and its programs. Throughout the process, we will continue to work together, as we always have, to advance the Museum’s mission.”

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“One of the major contributions women can make today is to create nonhierarchical, interactive models,” Tucker wrote in Museum Provision and Professionalism in 1990. “The organization of which I am director has been evolving a management model over many years that is based on transparency, shared knowledge and decision-making, self-criticism, and collaboration.” Women, she notes, seem to be the most interested in this model, and lists precedents such as “women’s self-help collectives” and “community action groups.”

For decades the New Museum has stayed ahead of its peers, reimagining what a museum could be. The museum would surely not have been able to execute its vision without that “nonhierarchical, interactive model” Tucker created as its foundation, even as it’s strayed from her original ideals. As the New Museum expands to look and operate not unlike the many New York museums Tucker was opposing when she created it, it stands to lose its mission, the radical essence that’s made it great, completely.

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Correction: This post originally reported full-time, unionized New Museum employees as making salaries in the mid-$30,000s. It had been edited to better define salaries at the New Museum among unionized employees.

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About the author

Hazel Cills

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel