Can Institutions Care about Their Workers?
Members of the New Museum Union try out some answers after a year of hard emotional labour forming a union, on top of their jobs as cultural workers.
Can institutions care? Better yet, since institutions are composed of people, the more pressing question is: Do the people who comprise them care? This question can’t be answered without recognizing the ways in which the staff of museums and arts organizations are stratified by race, class, and gender—from the public-facing, often POC workers making minimum wage to the mostly white, middle-class administrative staff to the overwhelmingly white directors and trustees using institutions to convert some of their hoarded wealth into cultural capital and self-satisfied philanthropy. If, to gloss Lacan, we accept that the rich are incapable of love, we may start to wonder whether the people who run institutions are even capable of care.
This has been on the minds of many of us involved in the formation of the New Museum Union and the negotiations that eventually resulted in our first contract, which we ratified in October of this year. We initially came together to commiserate about the systemic neglect we experienced daily at the museum, from unlivable salaries and unsafe working conditions to an ingrained culture of disposability. We were made to understand that we could easily be replaced by enthusiastic newcomers eager to survive on prestige and social capital—until, of course, they themselves became unable to sustain the low pay and demoralizing conditions. But despite this, and despite the antagonism that characterized the unionization process, so much of the work we all did to form the union and win our first contract relied on mutual support and trust. Care and solidarity were not only how we coped with the retaliation and burnout at work; they became core reasons for organizing.
These two questions guided the process of our organizing and remain salient even as the dust settles:
As museum workers, how do we care for each other in the face of systemic institutional disregard and exploitation? And how do we mobilize that care—not just to cope with the status quo, but to create structural change within and beyond the institution?
Here follow responses, past and present (and in one case, honorary), collected anonymously. Views are all their own.
I call for not merely care, but relentless care, revolutionary care. Care based in action, recognition of our own positions within the museum stratum, knowledge of our comrades’ positioning, and a radical reimagining of positions of primacy. Notions of care ring hollow when we steep ourselves in the rhetoric of solidarity and brush aside the hierarchies between museum workers themselves. This includes not only disparity in pay, generational wealth, and access to opportunity, but also the subjection of minoritized workers to art and environments which may exploit current and historic traumas. While we recognize our shared struggle against the upper tiers of leadership and donors, so must we recognize that if this struggle does not prioritize the last first, it will merely replicate the same hierarchies we hope to dismantle.
In capitalist parlance, power is defined in binary terms: those who wield power vs. those who are subjected to the whims of the powerful. I have come to learn that care is contradictory to this structural framework. In forming the New Museum Union, we harnessed an alternative source of power, one built not on money or prestige or titles, but on radical caring. This new model isn’t always easy to achieve. It requires a certain vulnerability, openness, and trust, which is rarely shared among coworkers.
In actively dismissing many of the union’s proposals for pay increases and better benefits, the Museum made clear they didn’t care about the well-being of their workers. Through the unionizing process, we discovered that advocating for ourselves as a collective was both the key to gaining power in the institution and the kind of care we didn’t know we needed. Rather than see ourselves as powerless within the binary, through solidarity and care, we transformed the meaning of power.
The culture industry presents a unique set of problems for workers attempting unionization. Many who work for cultural institutions do not, in fact, self-identify as “workers.” The industry has an endemic assumption of privilege on the part of its workforce, which not only accounts for its predominantly white, affluent composition but also invites these workers, regardless of their actual socioeconomic status, to distinguish themselves from the broader working class. Under these assumptions, no culture worker—no matter how much money they make or the nature of their work—can be considered part of the working class. To combat the individualism intrinsic to the competitive labor market which precludes the raising of a radical, collective consciousness among workers, we must embrace and explore the humanity of one another as colleagues. To have solidarity is to care in the face of risk, but when we exercise care in organizing, we shed a harsh, unforgiving light on the consequences of failure.
Literally what good is art if it’s more important than people—than people’s well-being? There is no such thing as work without emotional life!!! Institutions have emotional architecture and this one was fucking crumbling!!!! During a couple of hard seasons working in the back of the fifth floor, I only remember crying hysterically, laughing hysterically, panicking in the empty moments and listening to the bleakest Bill Callahan songs on my big headphones. Maybe losing my dad and losing my mind gave me some warped perspective. I found it hard to care about/for something that didn’t care about/for any of the people I liked or me. I kept getting in trouble. I wasn’t the only one having a hard time. An executive at the museum told one of my colleagues they were replaceable; after the 2016 election, I remember that executive made a show of switching from Uber to Lyft, textbook rich-lady liberalism, I guess it’s a boring story. It’s funny how it feels like a cool accident that we somehow decided to do the work of learning to be nice to each other in my cubicle-corner. You’re left to build your own structures and feel your own way—insolent laughter I think was the backbone of ours, also dialogue, also quitting. It seems possible that without Jasmine and Dana I would have disintegrated from all the fear coursing around my body. We got to keep the relationships we made even after we left, so I think in that sense we achieved collectively a little bit of fairness. I’d propose that in this century, art can only come after care.
What heightens the sense of disposability felt by art workers is the narrative that even entry-level jobs in the arts are so highly specialized and rare that anyone would be lucky to have them. This sentiment isn't just reinforced among art workers on the payroll; most are groomed for this mentality from the ground up, and fed ideas about intense competition at school and during internships. With this consensus, feeling unsettled, burnt out, or generally unhappy, can also feel really isolating! All visible signs of solidarity—from wearing a union pin to salary sharing to showing up to our peers' demonstrations—are crucial, because so many of us are going through the wringer, and because these are the first steps toward transforming the perception that only a certain kind of person (one who has the privilege to say yes to all volumes of work) deserves to be in this field.
This conversational text was written by several members of the New Museum Union—UAW Local 2110, by invitation of the editors of this paper.
Appeared in Print in Issue 9