Historically, curatorial departments have had incredible staff retention, especially at higher levels. Just last year, Parrish Art Museum’s chief curator Alicia Longwell retired after a 38 year tenure, Julia White retired after a 15-year tenure at BAMPFA where she held the positon as Asian art curator and interim director of the museum’s Registration and Direction department (following a 10-year tenure as a curator at Honolulu Academy of Arts), and after 25 years at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, collections manager and curator Valerie Wahl retired. The Syracuse University Art Museum of Art’s curator David Prince retired after working at the museum for 34 years in 2020. The list goes on. Curator positions are coveted and often require Masters or Ph.D. degrees in addition to deep skills acquired over years working with the collection and in the field.
Elizabeth St. George, who holds a Ph.D. from Bard Graduate Center, is an assistant curator of Decorative Arts at Brooklyn Museum comments: “I love my job but it’s a struggle to make ends meet.” In addition to her position at Brooklyn Museum, she teaches at Pratt Institute. Prior to joining Brooklyn Museum, she worked for over five years in the Sculpture and Decorative Arts department with research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Criss-crossing art and academia, St. George has over the years both held competitive positions in the field of decorative arts and acquired the specialist knowledge required to preserve and develop Brooklyn Museum’s collections and present it to the public.
Yesterday St. George along with many other Brooklyn Museum staff members and supporters picketed in front of the museum as the museum’s trustees and other guests arrived at its largest annual fundraising gala. This year’s Brooklyn Artist’s Ball is presented by Dior in conjunction with the museum’s blockbuster exhibition “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams.” As union organizer Helen Bolten tweeted their aim was to “embarrass the jerks in management @brooklynmuseum in front of all their fanciest patrons.” Staff members and the union are trying to move the contract negotiations between the museum and the union forward and are protesting the museum’s low wage offer.
“Low salaries and lack of promotional opportunities are making long tenure at the Brooklyn Museum unsustainable,” said Lauren Bradley, an associate conservator who has worked at the Museum for more than 7 years. “I’ve seen several extremely skilled professionals leave my department for better offers elsewhere. We’re responsible for the care of an incredibly important collection of over a million objects; but, as a staff, we’re undervalued.”
Last week Cultbytes reported on The Hispanic Society museum worker’s ongoing negotiations for their first union contract as they picketed outside of Chairman of the Board Phillippe De Montebello’s upper east side apartment building. When he retired from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008 he had worked at the museum for over three decades, making his start as a curatorial assistant. In 1977 he was appointed the museum’s director and in 1997 its CEO. In 2007, a survey published that he was the highest-paid executive at an American nonprofit institution, earning slightly more than $4.7 million a year. Although it is not fair to make 1:1 comparisons, the discrepancy between directors and curators is extremely high. According to Glasstoor, today, curators at institutions in New York average salaries run from $50-$123K.
“Workers say salaries at the Brooklyn Museum have been stagnant for years, and point to an exodus of employees to other museums over the last two years,” director of Local 2110 UAW Maida Rosenstein writes in an email. “Even by notoriously low museum standards for salaries, Brooklyn Museum salaries and hourly rates fall short, especially in the face of rising cost of living,” Bradley continues.
Staff of the Brooklyn Museum voted overwhelmingly to unionize in August 2021 joining, thousands of museum workers who have organized and fought for higher wages over the past decade. The museum’s current offer includes a three-and-a-half-year contract with across-the-board percentage increases amounting to 9% by the end of the contract. The Union is seeking 16.25% increases. The museums offer is much lower than workers received in the recently settled Whitney Museum contract, or at the Bronx Museum, a much smaller member of New York City’s Cultural Institutions Group, according to Local UAW 2110. The union also points to higher percentages granted to DC37 members who work at the Brooklyn Museum. To protect part-time workers, the Union is also seeking an agreement that available additional hours and shifts will go first to existing employees before the museum hires temporary staff or more part-time staff and to raise hourly rates for part-time front-of-house staff and a guarantee that across-the-board wage increases will be granted to part-time museum educators.
“Museum staff need to be recognized and compensated fairly,” said St. George. “We care for the collection, and we make the wonderful exhibitions and programs of this city possible.”
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to email@example.com.