2019: The Year According to Art + Museum Transparency
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2019: The Year According to Art + Museum Transparency

Photo: Walker design studio for Art + Museum Transparency

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, filmmakers, designers, and performers to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2019.

We are a non-hierarchical group of arts and museum workers who are friends and colleagues, and who founded Art + Museum Transparency at the end of May 2019 when we shared our salaries with each other over drinks. That night, we created an open, editable spreadsheet on Google Docs that contained our salaries at current and past positions, and shared it on our social networks and various listservs, including the art history program at the CUNY Graduate Center. We were inspired by people who had already kickstarted this conversation—Joshua Boldt’s Adjunct Project in 2012, the POWArts Salary Survey started in 2017, and Kimberly Drew’s salary share at the 2019 American Association of Museums conference, among others.

In our museum and arts workplaces, salary sharing was a completely taboo practice; we were nervous enough that we checked online to figure out whether we were doing anything illegal by talking about what we were paid. We weren’t. Neither were the people who filled out their details in the days and weeks after that. There are now more than 3,200 entries from workers within all different types of organizations, from contemporary art galleries and children’s museums to art magazines and tech company cultural initiatives. Six weeks later, we followed up with a spreadsheet crowdsourcing data on internships in arts and museum organizations, pointing to one of the largest sources of inequities in our system: unpaid internships. Working for free to get a foot in the door precludes so many people from the arts and museums in the first place. With 2019 coming to a close, we recently decided we would end submissions to these two spreadsheets on December 31 of this year and invite people to crunch the data and share their findings in 2020.

Though many have been writing about the relationship between art and labor for some time now, we think 2019 was a banner year for this conversation in cultural organizations of all kinds. We run an active Twitter account that amplifies and weaves together the many threads, actions, and ideas that are happening right now and historically. This year began with the inspiring unionization campaign at New York’s New Museum, and it was our hope that the conversation around unions for art workers would take off. It has—explosively—so we expect that art workers will continue organizing in 2020, with new resources and collaboration from major national labor unions. We’ll be doing everything we can to support it.

What follows are some of the people and projects in which we’ve found inspiration over the last 12 months. We’re excited to see more open and transparent actions that increase solidarity and change in our field in 2020, even if undertaking them sometimes gives us the same nerves we had when we shared our first spreadsheet. Paraphrasing one of our favorite phrases from a classic episode of Beverly Hills 90210: may the bridges we (all) burn light our way.


spread sheets

While we do not endorse corporate megastructures of any kind, we appreciate the designers whose ingenuity in Google Docs enabled the viral sharing of spreadsheets we’ve started and that so many people have filled out and made useful this year: on salary transparency, unpaid internships, and, most recently, union resources for arts organizations. We know individuals who have used the data to negotiate fairer compensation, and we also know of entire museum departments that have sat down and reassessed their pay scales, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Though enabled with crowdsourcing, these actions were all powered by one transformative resource: solidarity. We believe part of that solidarity extends back historically in acknowledging precursors who have been agitating in this way long before us. When we hold institutions to account, we do so with a huge hat tip to groups like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Art Workers Coalition (recently profiled by ARTnews as a precedent 50 years before the art world agitations of 2019) and their calls for greater diversity in the staff of museums, galleries, publications, and other sites of art and culture.


Unpaid interns at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva hold a banner during demonstration organised by The Fair Internship Initiative (FII), a network of interns calling for the UN to offer paid internships, at the Place des Nations on August 14, 2017 in Geneva. / AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

We were really heartened by the resolution to end unpaid internships passed by the Association of Art Museum Directors in June of this year. As we noted in the first salary transparency spreadsheet, if interns are unpaid, this negatively affects all workers by suppressing wages across the board. It has long been a trope of the art world that we work for love and not money, but it’s the latter that pays rent, bills, and the student loans it takes to be qualified for so many positions in the arts. We need to address this if we want to meaningfully shift the needle on workplace diversity in the arts and museums. A major misstep in the AAMD resolution is the allowance for internships for academic credit to remain unpaid. We called BS on this—universities already make enough money on their students. They shouldn’t be allowed to farm them out to do unpaid work for academic credits the students have purchased. If institutions truly want to embrace historically underrepresented colleagues—and we really hope they do—they need to create meaningful pathways for entering the field that acknowledge the value of their labor. So if you have one New Year’s resolution, make it this: 2020 is the year every intern will be paid.


In 2018, former Artforum and Parkett editor Nikki Columbus was offered a job as an associate curator of performance at MoMA PS 1 and then quickly had that offer rescinded when it became clear that she was pregnant and wanted to negotiate a flexible start date to accommodate her status as a new parent. Instead of biting her tongue and toeing the line of most (art)workplaces in the US that treat caregivers as second-class citizens, Columbus raised a court case against the museum, and won a settlement this year. While the victory was a landmark in terms of enforcing existing pregnancy discrimination legislation (which PS1 needed to be reminded of, making it no better than Walmart on that count), the curators who acted in such an egregious manner, Peter Eleey and Klaus Biesenbach, are still employed—Biesenbach even ascending to the directorship of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Columbus has found much less support from her art world colleagues and far fewer opportunities to flex her expertise. We salute her bravery in speaking truth to power, but let no one ignore that two of the three curators in this story are working in their chosen roles as curators, and one isn’t. Guess which category the female parent worker falls into?

In the wake of this case, the news that paid parental leave has been instituted at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the MFA Boston is welcome. At eight and six weeks, respectively, it’s still not long enough for either the pregnant person or their birth partner, but it’s a start. So here’s a second New Year’s resolution: we think the option to take up to six months of paid leave for caregiving should be the standard, and it’s something we should all be working towards, whether or not we have kids (most of us at AMT don’t). Whatever shape your family takes, you’re going to need to take time for it at some point.


Security guards at the Frye Art Museum and their supporters (including Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant) announce the creation of the Art… (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

We have been incredibly excited to watch the wave of unionizations happening in the art world over the last year. The New Museum staff unionizing with United Autoworkers Local 2110 stood out as an early moment in this story and helped catalyze and serve as a resource for so many others who came after it including the Tenement Museum, the Frye, BAM, and, most recently, LA MoCA (and we should also mention the Marciano Foundation employees, whose founders shut its doors rather than honor their employees’ right to form a union, and with the help of AFSCME have kept agitating for recognition and reinstatement). In response to the focus on unionization, we started tweeting resources in a thread in early September, many of which are now in the new AMT Union Resources spreadsheet. Then in late October, we saw a tweet from writer Hamilton Nolan about the obstacles for tech workers unionizing, and it spoke to some of our experiences, particularly not knowing who to contact and which national unions are interested and equipped to help us organize in this sector. Nolan recommended we get in touch with the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees, which sent us the original contact info and descriptions that appear on the first page of the spreadsheet. We added the second tab with resources from our earlier Twitter thread and others we’ve collected since. For us, the list of existing unions is really helpful. Some are new and fighting for recognition or their first contracts, others are older. We hope the list helps normalize the idea of unions and refutes the stale anti-union talking points that unions will shutter these museums or pose insurmountable hurdles. MoMA has been unionized since 1971 and is hardly struggling. Like everything we do, the spreadsheet is a group effort and we have to thank DPE and Nolan for the help. Also, like everything we do, it was put together quite rapidly and shared as soon as possible. We are still gathering contacts from other unions and more resources and will continue the spreadsheet. Send them our way if you have something to add: artandmuseumtranpsarency@gmail.com.


In 2019, organizing and activism in the cultural sector benefited immensely from technologies helping to bridge our isolation and silos, not least among them podcasts. Our friends at Art and Labor, OK Fox and Lucia Love, have been tracing the connections between art workplaces and equity since May 2018, and their 60+ beautifully conceived podcast episodes are a treasure trove of resources on the subject. They were kind enough to host one of us to talk more about the first spreadsheet on salary transparency, and we have remained fans of their work. It takes a lot of time and courage to do what they do, and so we salute them for carrying on the conversation in accessible, bite-size chunks that are both robust and raucous. Museopunks—the long-running “podcast for the progressive museum” hosted by Suse Anderson and Ed Rodley (replacing Jeffrey Inscho)—in affiliation with AAM, has been tackling major inequities and injustices in the museum space since 2013. In the past year, episodes with leading voices for change in the field addressed “Decolonization and Its Discontents,” “Queering Your Museum,” the ICOM museum definition debate, and in May 2019, salary transparency (featuring two of our members). We are grateful for the work of Anderson and Rodley, and Fox and Love, which brings crucial voices and ideas to our earbuds.


Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, which is headquartered at the site of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Coleman is trying to tell the story of the Civil War in a way to help visitors rethink the conflict. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)

The art world, and particularly the leaders of its major museums, get so much so wrong that it’s good to look elsewhere, especially to other cultural organizations and leaders. We have massive admiration for Christy S. Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Virginia, the first woman and first African American to lead the institution. She grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, where historical reenactment centered on telling stories of the Revolutionary War was a large part of tourism and local identity. In the 1990s, as director of public history at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, she pointed out that in their reenactments of colonial market days, it would not only have been land, food, and animals for sale, but enslaved people, too, and so she conceived and executed a reenactment of a slave auction. Unsurprisingly, this garnered headlines and ensured that the telling of history expanded. She has been as visionary in her leadership at the ACWM, arguing for pay equity and real pipelines for historically underrepresented workers as much as telling hard histories in sensitive ways, making a direct and convincing connection between who holds the staff positions and the types of stories that get public airtime in our cultural institutions. We admire the way she has been insistently motivated not by public recognition but the ethical implications of her work, and has reinvested and redirected any publicity her actions produce to intensify focus on the stories and issues, rather than herself.

Coleman has announced she is leaving her post at the American Civil War Museum in January to become executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, and we look forward to following her work there in 2020.


We have long loved the work of LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski who together formed the provocation and practice around the truism that, as Brian O’Dogherty stated in the 1970s, white cubes are not devoid of context and thus our cultural institutions are not neutral in any way, shape, or form. Their project, Museums Are Not Neutral, started as a T-shirt project and a hashtag. The first batch of shirts raised $5,669.79 for the Southern Poverty Law Center. And the second version of this campaign donated 100 percent of the profits to support World Central Kitchen, an initiative using the power of food to empower communities and strengthen economies. In 2019, the hashtag continued connecting conversations across the atomized social media landscape, demonstrating the power of online organizing.


A protest held by Decolonize This Place held at the Whitney Museum on March 22, 2019. Katherine McMahon for Artnews.

The fight this year over Warren B. Kanders’s seat on the board of the Whitney Museum, ending with his resignation on July 25, reminded us all that our museums hold cultural patrimony in the public trust and seek to occupy and shape public consciousness, but often presume to do so dictatorially, with little or no transparency or accountability to the publics they serve. In the case of the Whitney, a broad coalition of activists, artists, journalists, and museum workers came together to change that, and despite enormous resistance, they actually won. Kanders’s profiteering off the manufacturing of tear gas and “the suppression of civil unrest,” first noted by Al Jazeera and Hyperallergic in 2015, was tied to the anti-immigrant border policy of Donald Trump by Hyperallergic in 2018, triggering a series of events, including a letter signed by more than 100 Whitney staffers, protests by artists in the Biennial, and nine weeks of actions by Decolonize This Place and 30 other activist groups, that forced Kanders to resign. The bizarre defense of the Whitney as “a safe space for unsafe ideas” in a letter written by director Adam Weinberg emphasized the inability of museum leadership to adequately contend with the ethical import of the situation, and demonstrated that real change in our institutions will only come from the ground up.


Photographer Eddie Lee/Hypebeast

It is instructive to reflect on the case of the Guggenheim Museum hiring its first Black curator, Chaedria LaBouvier. LaBouvier opened her exhibition centered on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 work Defacement and was almost immediately critical of the way in which she was treated by the institution and, in particular, the curatorial department. On the face of it, LaBouvier—like Nikki Columbus—has infinitely more to lose by raising her concerns. There’s only one thing more unappealing to art world powerbrokers than an “angry,” “difficult” woman, and that’s an “angry,” “difficult” Black woman. LaBouvier obviously knew she was making it tough for herself, and yet she persisted. In hindsight, it is important to remember that it took someone from outside the art world (she comes from film) to experience the hierarchies and pettiness of curatorial work and call them for what they often are: insular, nepotistic, and run by key personalities who do not always take care of the workers below them.


Was it their breathless praise of Met director Max Hollein making the no-brainer hire of curator Denise Murrell, in which the article centered the director and not the visionary curator? Or perhaps it was the article on unionizing in the arts in which, again, directors and powerbrokers got the limelight and the quotes over the art workers gestured to in the headline. Was it the pre-review of new MoMA that glorified all the late, unpaid nights of work junior curators would do? Maybe it even started as early as their article on outgoing director Tom Campbell in which unsubstantiated (and, in the end, completely erroneous and libelous) rumors of improper conduct with a staff member led to the unconscionable tabloid persecution of a brilliant former Met staffer. We can’t pinpoint exactly when we lost faith in the New York Times’ arts section, but reading their lax, lazy coverage of the art world has underscored that critics, like so many in our overlapping fields, are reliant for their access and stories on the benevolence of those in power which results in softballs (at best) and silence on key issues (at worst). We’ve highlighted this on our Twitter feed, and we think it’s a helpful reminder as we move into a new year: always assess the sources of our arts news and information for bias and misinformation. The movements in the art world this year are recalibrating the balance of power, and that encompasses the hallowed halls of journalism, too. On the flip side, we want to salute the journalists who have continually supported stories that amplify all kinds of difficult topics, and none more so (in our eyes) than Zachary Small whose five-part series on the difficulties art handlers face focused on art workers so often not given the spotlight they deserve.

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