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Are For-Profit Values Disrupting the Museum World?

WiseWoman - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

There's no doubt we live in a divisive time: The vaccinated versus the unvaccinated, Red versus Blue, environmentalists versus climate deniers, the uber-rich versus everyone else? And for many workers it's Striketober. Where is the museum world in all this angst and anger? With the release of AFSCME's Accountability Report on Museums last week, it seems like these divisions are lapping at our shores. As Christy Coleman tweeted when she Tweeted the link to the AFSCME report: "It's not a good look." Too true. In fact, it's living proof that phrase Museums Aren't Neutral, usually suggesting a value-driven turn for the greater good, has another darker side.

If you missed seeing the AFSCME report, you should read it. It's the reason boards hire gazillion-dollar law firms to keep their staffs from unionizing because once that door opens, unions like AFSCME publish reports like this one. What it lays bare is the kind of behavior we hope isn't happening, but clearly is: That a number of very big, very wealthy museums took PPP money available in the pandemic's wake, and then rather then using it to keep their staffs intact, they let their lowest paid staff go, emerging a year later with their endowments unscathed. In fact, the report suggests that some of the qualifying museums could have withstood the loss of visitation due to pandemic closings, without receiving PPP at all, but collecting it allowed their endowments to grow. How did that happen? Well, remember when we all went into hiding early in 2020? The markets took a deep dive then too, which may account for the circle-the-wagons approach at many of the big well-endowed museums. But three months later, with stimulus checks written and the hunt for a vaccine underway, it bounced back and stayed that way. The labor market, however, did not recover. In January 2020 unemployment was at 3.5-percent, the lowest it's been in forever. A year later, unemployment had climbed to 10-percent, with a huge drop in women's employment and an ongoing hit to the travel, entertainment, and culture industries. Who works there? Oh yeah, museum folks.

Here are some examples from the AFSCME report: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, despite ending FY 2020 with a $2.3 million surplus and receiving $3.3 million in PPP loans, laid off 97 workers during the pandemic. Then there is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the leadership made headlines in 2020 for looking the other way in the face of sexual harassment while spending thousands of dollars on a union-busting law firm to fight their workers’ organizing effort, received a $5.1 million PPP loan. Not surprisingly, PMA turned around and let 127 workers go during the pandemic. And then there's the Boston's Museum of Science that had too many employees to qualify for the first round of PPP. How do you fix that? Let half of them go and then get a PPP check for $4.7 million this year.

Scott Fitzgerald once quipped, "The rich are different from you and me," and Hemingway is supposed to have responded, "Yes, they have more money," but when you read AFSCME's report, it does seem as if those differences have permeated the big institutions, resulting in behavior that, from the outside at least, appears valueless at the very moment when museums cry out for values. While AFSCME's report puts the country's larger museums under the microscope for taking PPP with one hand, while letting staff go with the other, it makes clear they were not alone in reducing staff during the pandemic. The report underscores that while almost all museums reduced staff hours--affecting 43-percent of the workforce who lost approximately $21,191 per person-- 53-percent of the country's museums reduced staff positions as well. Since women occupy 50.1-percent of the workforce, and since many women and women of color occupy hourly and frontline positions, museum women took a particularly hard hit.

If you could gather board members together from the museums highlighted in the AFSCME report, what would they say? Would they tell you what they do with their museum's endowment is the board's business? Would they respond that their primary duty is fiduciary, meaning they protect their museum's endowment at all costs? And would they add, they are well-endowed for a reason? Maybe. But is it possible to hold onto your values, protect your staff, AND protect your endowment? And what happens when directors accept 7-figure positions? Do their values change? Is it easier to lay off staff you rarely see or interact with? Maybe. Although in fairness, Museum of Science President Tim Ritchie ,who received PPP funding after reducing staff, also reportedly took a 50-percent pay cut. One of the points the report makes is that over the last 25 years, as government support for museums lessened, the influence of rich donors grew, writing "This heavy reliance on rich donors allows wealthy individuals to essentially 'buy' a board seat and then dictate the museum’s priorities and control its finances."

AFSCME's wrote its report, not simply for the greater good, but to promote its work as a voice for unionized workers. Some might argue that is the greater good, but it's worth pointing out that its position is not without bias. AFSCME wants us to know it helped museum workers during the depths of the pandemic and beyond. One of the examples it gives is the Buffalo (NY) Zoo where it bargained for zoo workers when leadership wanted to increase their healthcare costs by 30-percent.

So what does all this mean? If big museum boards, driven by Wall Street, choose museum presidents and directors, isn't it likely they will select candidates whose attitudes towards race, gender and class resemble their own? If so, what's the likelihood they will select people who who will speak for hourly workers, for women, and people of color?

How do museums use the power they have for good? Wilkening Consulting's 2021 Survey tells us that after friends and family, museums are among the country's most trusted institutions. And a percentage of the public seems comfortable with museums as little islands of neutrality, presenting facts, figures and data. That said, the group not included (at least not by name) in the survey is museum workers themselves. Maybe that's part of the issue? Maybe once you've seen how the sausage is made, it's hard to be neutral? If you know your museum operates with an ad-hoc attitude toward HR issues, lets racist and sexist workplace comments slide, gives its leadership giant raises while providing none for staff or increasing their healthcare costs, how do you trust the place you work for? It seems to me, one of the hardest things today's museum leaders must do is demonstrate the same concern and values they show for their collections and communities to the people who work for them.

Be well, be kind, stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


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