The museum recently announced that its endowment has hit $1 billion.
The museum recently announced that its endowment has hit $1 billion. littleny / Shutterstock.com

"Let's try my office," Emily Hall says to me. "With the door closed." Her office is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she works as an editor of exhibition catalogs. She and more than 100 of her colleagues spent Tuesday night just outside the museum, in the rain, to protest the museum's attempt to cut staffers' health-care benefits—not long after the behemoth museum proudly announced that its endowment has hit $1 billion. What the hell's going on at MoMA?

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There's been Björk (blech). There's been Matisse (swoon). There's been the fact of MoMA tearing down a noted work of architecture.

And now the nation's leading modern-art museum is facing a conflict that could turn into a worker strike.

A protest poster created by the design staff at the Museum of Modern Art, using the museums own font and color scheme.
A protest poster created by the design staff at the Museum of Modern Art, using the museum's own font and color scheme.

Folks in Seattle may remember Hall as The Stranger's art critic, and a very good one. (I've always been an admirer, but for reasons neither of us can quite figure out, we'd never actually spoken before now.) I caught up with her yesterday about the protest, her health care, and what a workplace in conflict feels like. Here's our edited interview. MoMA's response is at the bottom.

"Let’s try my office, with the door closed..."

So you are at the office.

Yes.

And what do you do there?

My title is editor. I edit exhibition catalogs. I’ve been here 10 years this November.

I have to ask: Do you get to edit Leah Dickerman’s writing?

I haven’t yet, but I would like to. I mean, she’s an amazing thinker, and not all curators are good writers—I know that surprises the hell out of you [laughs]—but she’s a good writer.

I guess we should get right down to it. What's going on?

The members of the union—it’s Local 2110 of the auto workers. It’s a professional union that covers office workers but also people in retail, people all over the museum, and then it tops out at a certain managerial level.... Our contract expired May 20. And then in the negotiations, the museum came back with a proposal for us to cover a great deal more of our health coverage. My husband and my child are both covered on my health insurance, and it would basically triple what I pay in a month.

Can you say how much that would be?

My contribution would go from $100 to a little over $300 a month, if I'm getting that right. And that's just in premiums. There would also be a huge deductible, and if anyone needed surgery, we would be paying a percentage of that. All these things are new.

Management is saying that health-care costs are going up in the double digits. Management also said something really crazy; they told us, "You really like that health care," like, you use it, like, are we supposed to not use it?

And they want us to share the burden; however MoMA's endowment topped a billion dollars last month, and we had a meeting in which they were excited to tell us the endowment had topped a billion dollars. We had the Matisse cutouts show this year, which was a blockbuster. The museum is doing better than it has ever done. Frankly, it seems to me obscene to ask for those kinds of concessions in such a flush time. And you never get them back. Once you give things up, you never get them back. And no one makes very much money here. I’m at the upper end of what people make at the museum.

Can you say how much you make?

It’s something like $89,000. I’ve been here, however, 10 years.

Still, that’s not huge. Not in New York.

No, it’s really not, and most people here make less than $50,000. There are tiny wage increases of 1.5 percent, so a lot of people, if you add in the health payments, would be taking a pay cut, and when nobody makes that much to begin with… again, obscene, I think.

It’s a nonprofit; this is a nonprofit. And I can’t confirm this, but I hear that upper management gets a bonus. [Reported just today.] How do you get a bonus at a nonprofit and then reduce the compensation of your workforce?

Tell me about the protest.

It was June 2, Tuesday night—it was the Party in the Garden, which is the museum’s big fundraiser for the year. I was there. In the rain.

I wasn’t very involved in organizing it. I was on the action committee, but I had a book I sent to the printer on Tuesday, so I was a little out of it. But I showed up at six. We were on 54th Street, where we thought the entrance to the party was going to be, going into the garden right off the street.

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There are 260-something people in our bargaining unit, and there were at least a hundred people there. Some people say 150.

I don’t know if the museum heard about our protest, or if it was because of the rain, but the entrance to the party had switched to the Lauder building on the other side. Some of us were over there, and some were on 54th Street holding up signs.

Our graphics department made amazing signs using MoMA's font in MoMA style, using beautiful bright red, so we were carrying those. A lot of people had United Auto Worker signs, which seemed a little confusing. We were chanting, and I was giving out leaflets to anyone who would take them. For two hours. At eight I went back up to my office and...

Back to work?

No. But...how best to say this? A great deal of what happens here operates on a system of goodwill. No one wants to do a bad job, so we end up working a lot more hours than we get paid for. We could bring a case to the union if we felt we were working too many overtime hours. At least in my department, it’s understood that you are going to work nights and weekends for a couple of months sometimes. The last book I did was for the architecture in Latin America show, and I worked nights, weekends, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, New Year’s Day, and you just do what you have to do to get it done, and there’s no structure to protect you.

Or there is. Right? The union?

Or there is, yes, but when you’ve made the choice to do it...I mean you don’t want to blame the victims, but people need good recommendations. Our interns, our curatorial assistants, they’re hired for four years and then either a job is created for them in an assistant curator position or they have to leave. Everyone would like the possibility of a job being created for them, so they work a ton. How did I get on this tangent? Oh, you asked whether I'd gone back up to my office that night to work. No. But if I didn’t have a book out that day, I would have gone up and continued to work.

Do you have the sense that the public protest worked? That MoMA will be embarrassed into negotiating?

Well, MoMA certainly can’t use more bad press. I mean, we’ve had so much in the last year, between Bjork and the Folk Art Museum and various other things. And there was a strike in 2000, a 4 ½-month strike—I think—that was very bad press for the museum. We’re assuming that they don’t want it to get to that point again. But I know the negotiating committee had a meeting with management yesterday, and we haven’t heard anything yet.

Does not hearing portend anything either way?

I have no idea. The offer itself is so surprising; it’s such a surprisingly bad offer that you just think they must really mean it. But I don’t know.

Are there contingency plans if the protest doesn't work and they refuse to budge? Does that trigger a strike?

I don’t know. It’s never out of the offing. It’s never something that we wouldn’t do. But I can’t say more certainly than that.

You're in the office, with your door closed. What is the environment like there right now?

Well, actually, my department is a little different. It’s really collegial. I work for I think the politest man in New York, which after Dan [Savage, editorial director of The Stranger] is quite a change. You can quote me on that.

We’re not climbing all over each other to get ahead of each other. Basically, we all do the same thing in this department, more or less. And I’m fairly certain that management in our office takes us seriously and takes this seriously and is on our side, as far as I can tell.

The associate publisher has told me he’s on the side of labor, the publisher I haven’t talked to, and the production director, he jokes about it, but he’s on our side. So it’s not oppressive in my office. We stand in the hallway and talk about it all the time. Can you hang on a second? I’ve got an intern... [off-phone] Oh yeah, these. I think that these will all go under something called the New York Times Collection…I'm back.

What do you hear about other departments?

I haven’t really, frankly. I don’t know. I haven’t heard. I don’t travel out of my department that much. I don’t know tons of people. If I haven’t worked on a book with people, I don’t really know them. And a lot of people have jobs that involve the public: they’re in retail or visitors services. It’s like the gulag here—you don’t have that much opportunity to stand around and plot with your coworkers.

Is there any feeling out in the galleries of what's going on behind the scenes?

I haven't been. Yesterday was pretty busy; I was just at my desk most of the day. But I’m going out to lunch with my fellow editors a little later today and I’ll see; they are all more active in the planning and execution of the protest, so I’ll see what they think.

You know, before the protest, I had that 10-minutes-before-a-party fear that no one would come. Some people say 150 of us were there, some say 100, and I don’t know how they count crowds, really. One of the quotes in one of the articles written about this says there is enormous rage about these offers within the union, and I think that's true. People showed up with their kids; people that are not in the union showed up, just to be with us. I saw a curator who must be too high up to be in the union there with us protesting. One thing I really enjoy is the way the staff here looks out for each other… there is a really good fellow feeling.

Who was the curator?

I don't really want to say. I don't know what his situation is.

But he did go out in public with his support.

That's true. It was Christian Rattemeyer from drawings and prints. I understood that when people become full curators, they aren’t in the union, but maybe that’s different in different departments, too.

At the end of the day, do you feel the public supports you? Is there an understanding that the museum workers are like other workers, or is there the feeling that, well, you have plush jobs at a fancy art museum and you get to do what you love, so suck it up?

Sadly enough, I only have a sense of internet commentators and commenters, and the feeling is mostly for us. And they sort of separate MoMA the behemoth from the people who make it run—not who run it, but who make it run. I think a lot of people are seeing the lie in that do-what-you-love bullshit. Is that an excuse to pay people less? Is that an excuse to make people write for free? It shouldn’t be. A lot of people I’ve told in the art world, they’re appalled on my behalf. Whether that’s just because I’m so lovable or whether it’s a general principle, who knows?

After this conversation, I contacted the museum for a comment about the labor dispute, the contract negotiation, and the protest. MoMA’s director of communications, Margaret Doyle, told me she couldn’t "discuss the specifics of the negotiations as we are in the midst of the process,” but she did forward me the statement the museum made in response to Tuesday’s protests:

"The Museum of Modern Art has an outstanding staff. At this time, we are in the process of negotiations with Local 2110, and are optimistic that we will reach a positive outcome for the staff and all concerned."

A news story from Hyperallergic also came out this morning, reporting that talks have stalled.