From Julia Silverman
January 24, 2019
Dear New Museum Leadership,
I am writing to stand in solidarity with the New Museum Union and to echo the calls for museum leadership to embrace their colleagues’ right to advocate for fair wages and working conditions.
Marcia Tucker was my aunt, and the New Museum is an institution that I grew up with. I live with memories of seeing Liza Lou’s Kitchen for the first time when I was five and trying (unsuccessfully) with my dad to make my own doll as part of “A Labor of Love.” I remember sitting at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the museum’s building at 235 Bowery almost exactly year after Marcia’s death, when I was in high school. Just beginning to become interested in art history, I distinctly remember the feeling of sitting in the audience, suddenly becoming painfully aware of the irony that I was only then beginning to discover the historical significance of the person my family had just lost. As someone who, like Marcia, has since decided to devote her life to the historical study of art, I see her legacy, embodied in the New Museum’s founding mission, as a continual reminder that ethical practice in the art world cannot end with the content of exhibited artworks or in the politics of those works’ creators. While Marcia was ultimately unable to achieve her goal of running a fully non-hierarchical institution—in which people regularly rotated jobs and received the same wage—the New Museum was nevertheless built on the philosophy that a museum’s institutional structure was subject to the same “radical politics” that it espoused through its exhibitions.
In writing this letter, I reached out to one of Marcia’s longtime friends on the phone to ask what Marcia would have thought about the staff’s decision to unionize. She responded with surprise: “I don’t know what Marcia would have done,” she replied, because “there would have been no need.” This is not to say there had been no hiccups over the museum’s first few decades, she clarified, or even that she knew of the personnel issues Marcia had encountered over her tenure; yet, as she said, “if there were a problem, I can’t imagine [Marcia] not sitting down and laying it out, telling people how much they could afford and providing transparency.” This is precisely the transparency that the New Museum Union is seeking in their decision to organize.
I am sympathetic to the many challenges of maintaining an institution’s founding ethos in a changing political and economic climate. Yet, as New Museum leadership continues to tout the institution’s legacy as a “harbinger of change, with courage and grit,” and claim that “this vision is very much alive at the Museum today,” I believe they owe it to their employees to put that vision into practice within the walls of the museum itself. The decision to hire a union-busting firm whose stated services include “counter union campaigns” and “union avoidance training” represents a direct attempt by museum leadership to undermine employees’ right to organize and to fully occlude any sense of transparency or camaraderie across the institution.
That said, there is still time for Museum leadership to embrace employees’ decision to unionize as an opportunity to live up to its legacy of “radical vision” by establishing standards for dialogue across the museum’s ranks, to prioritize diversity, and to make sure all employees are being paid a living wage. As someone deeply committed to the museum’s legacy, I implore New Museum leadership to enter the bargaining process in good faith, to collaborate with employees in ensuring a healthy future for the institution.
To me and to the New Museum Union organizers who invoked it, Marcia’s vision was not a tagline, an advertising slogan, or fundraising copy. As her image and her words continue to appear in the Museum’s publications and promotional materials, it is my sincerest hope that they will be accompanied by a broader desire on the part of leadership to hear the demands of employees who care deeply about the continued vitality of the institution, and in so doing, to model a more ethical and socially responsible art industry.
Julia Silverman, PhD student in the History of Art & Architecture, Harvard University