Under a persistent, chilling drizzle, over 100 archivists, curators, librarians and other staffers from the Museum of Modern Art huddled across the street from the entrance to the education and research building, firing off a near-constant stream of chants like “Modern Art, Ancient wages!” and “MoMA says give back, we say fight back.”
Their howls of protest were directed at the swells that were trickling in for the 7 p.m. opening cocktail reception of the museum’s annual spring gala, The Party in the Garden.
Whether the well-to-do attendees heard the protesters’ complaints or even cared was impossible to tell. They were busying themselves futzing with umbrellas and readjusting mink shawls as they climbed out of taxis and limousines, scurrying to get under the green-carpeted entrance, ready to hobnob with the likes of the evening’s honorees, Richard Serra, Kara Walker, and 100-year-old board member David Rockefeller.
That the well-to-do guests were a bit of a hurry to get the party started and might not want to engage with the a rabble of vociferous demonstrators was not at all surprising, especially considering that the cost of a table ranged from $25,000 to $100,000, and individual tickets started at $2,500.
MoMA’s staff showed up in force, huddled under umbrellas and deploying their children to pass out flyers to pedestrians, protesting that MoMA wants to up the cost of health care premiums for families and maintenance of individual coverage. The five-year collective bargaining agreement between the union and MoMA had expired as of May 20.
“They want to increase our costs just to maintain our health benefits, and pretty substantial increases at that. There are substantial increases in the cost for family coverage, and they are forcing people to pay for individual coverage,” Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, the union chapter of the United Auto Workers, which represents MoMA’s staffers, said.
“And then, in addition, even if you want to pay for those benefits, they want to increase the cost of doctor visit co-pays and prescriptions. If you’re hospitalized or have surgery, they want people to pay 15 percent of the cost of the hospitalization or surgery up to $2,500. If you’re having a baby, this contract means you’re paying for it.”
When asked why MoMA was insisting upon these cuts to benefits, Rosenstein replied, “The cost of their [MoMA’s] health care went up and they want their workers to pay for it.”
To be clear, this isn’t a group of laborers that are raking in massive amounts of cash. According to a press release sent out by the union before the demonstration, the salary of “entry-level museum staff starts at approximately $29K per year and the membership, which includes professional staff such as curators, librarians and conservators, averages $49K.”
“I chose to work in a museum because I love it, not to make a lot of money—but cutting our health care is inhumane,” said Victoria Wong, senior library assistant. “I can't make ends meet if my health care isn't covered.”
MoMA—when it’s not causing a minor revolt among critics with a near-universally reviled Bjòrk retrospective—has been growing exponentially, doubling the number of visitors since Glenn Lowry took over as its director in 1995.
They’ve used their increased financial clout to gobble up the surrounding pricey real estate, and their latest expansion, one that also has the been met with a serious backlash, will absorb the nearby American Folk Art Museum.
According to their Fiscal Year 2013 990 return, MoMA’s total assets and fund balances amounted to a staggering $1,086,806,338. Yes, that’s over a billion dollars, an increase of $63,765,038 from the prior year. MoMA’s audited financial statements for 2014 and 2013 show that their bottom line has continued its robust ascendance. Union representatives said that this year their endowment alone topped $1 billion.
A source at MoMA told The Daily Beast that at a recent all-staff meeting, Chief Investment Officer Frank Ahimaz even went so far as to boast that MoMA's investment earnings from 2012 to 2015 were “so high they’re unheard of!”
The source also revealed that the museum has said the proposed cuts will save the museum approximately $550,000. Since the annual cost of health care for Local 2110 clocks in at approximately $8.5 million a year, slashing benefits will result in less than 7 percent in savings, a miniscule fraction of MoMA’s total operating costs.
In 2013, bonuses for senior staff alone came to $2,993,392, more than four times the amount required to make up the difference.
The Daily Beast reached out to MoMA for comment, but they declined, issuing this statement: “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.”
When asked if they were willing to confirm their CIO’s description of their investment prowess, a spokesperson replied, “As we are in the process of negotiating with 2110, we will decline to comment on details of the negotiations.”
In 2013 alone, MoMA amassed $58,540,049 in investment income.
Local 2110 president Rosenstein remains optimistic that the two parties can settle their differences before it comes to an actual walkout. “We still are hopeful that the museum is going to hear us and we're going to be able resolve this,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean the rank and file are in any way ready to cave.
“It’s the benefits,” another protester who requested anonymity said. “It’s a great museum, but we’re not here because of the money. These aren’t just entry-level positions. We’re talking about people with a great deal of education, including master’s degrees. And they [MoMA] know that there are hundreds of people waiting in line right behind us, desperate for a job here. They’re going to test our resolve because they can.
“We are expendable and they know it.”