The New Museum is world class, but many find it a tough place to work
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The New Museum is world class, but many find it a tough place to work
From left, Shawn Escarciga, Dana Kopel, Alicia Graziano and Lily Bartle, when they were working to create a union at the New Museum, outside the museum in New York, Jan. 23, 2019. Critics acknowledge the success the New Museum in New York has achieved — but they say it has come at the expense of many people who work there. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Considered one of the finest small museums in America, the New Museum is routinely acclaimed for its exhibitions of contemporary art under the stewardship of its longtime director, Lisa Phillips.

At the helm for 21 years, Phillips has earned the admiration of her peers by growing the institution from a scrappy operation into an influential cultural force with increased attendance, exhibition space, staff, budget and visibility.

But there is another side to the New Museum described by former and current staff members who complain of unhealthy work conditions, low pay and low morale.

A former finance director says Phillips told her to mislead the museum’s board about a cash shortfall. Art handlers say they were forced to work overnight at times to meet onerous deadlines.

“The best analogy I can come up with,” said Derya Kovey, a former registrar at the museum, “is a sweatshop.”

The complaints are coming forward at a time when the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have forced many institutions to reevaluate how they operate, and museum employees are feeling newly empowered to address long-simmering concerns.

In recent weeks, the New Museum responded to the coronavirus crisis by cutting its budget — to $11 million from $14 million — forcing layoffs that critics say were used to silence staff members who helped establish a union at the museum last year. In a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, the union charged that “layoffs have been discriminatory and retaliatory” because the union’s entire steward committee and bargaining committee were initially laid off or furloughed.

The museum says the criticisms are unfounded and unfair, characterizing them broadly in a statement as “falsehoods and hearsay from disgruntled former staffers.” The union’s complaint “has no merit,” it said in another statement, and the layoffs were not targeted but “were made across all departments and staff levels” and “only for legitimate business reasons during an unprecedented crisis.”

Phillips, who declined to be interviewed, said in a statement: “My record in making the New Museum a diverse, exciting, and creative space for experimentation for team members and visitors alike speaks for itself.”

But the number of people who describe negative experiences while working at the New Museum — and do so publicly, by name — is unusual. Many attribute their concerns to the sense that the museum, under Phillips, tries to match the output and impact of New York City’s major museums, but does not have anywhere near the same level of resources, which can severely strain the staff.

“There was very much an ends-justify-the-means approach to what staff were asked to do in the name of realizing some very ambitious exhibitions,” said Sam Rauch, who was a director of exhibitions management at the museum. “And there is no question it takes a toll.”

In more than 30 interviews with former and current staff members from all ranks, an image emerged of a museum where some employees felt compromised or mistreated. Many of them chose to depart.

The museum has had four chief financial officers in 10 years and four exhibition directors in 12 years.

The museum said that it does not have high turnover — and that its attrition rate is normal for a museum of its size: “Of 68 full-time staff, 25 have been with the New Museum for over eight years and another 10 for over five years.”

Phillips remains widely respected by many artists and art professionals.

“I’ve known Lisa for more than three decades and think she is one of the most outstanding director curators of her generation,” said Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Phillips spent 23 years. “She always puts the artists and the art first. I know former and current staff who only have good things to say.”

The museum’s board said in a statement that it “stands firmly behind Ms. Phillips and her stellar leadership, her tremendous accomplishments, and her character,” adding that she has turned the museum “into a powerhouse of acclaimed exhibitions and innovative programs known the world over.”

The museum, which recently reopened after being closed because of the pandemic, occupies a niche within the New York art world, presenting many emerging or underexposed contemporary artists. Founded by Marcia Tucker in 1977 to celebrate living artists, it has no permanent collection, but shows art drawn from institutions, galleries and collectors all over the world.

The exhibitions have often been a great success, ranging from the immersive videos of Pipilotti Rist to the graphic drawings and paintings of Raymond Pettibon to the sexually charged creations of Sarah Lucas.

“They’re doing some interesting shows other museums wouldn’t do,” said Christine Poggi, the director of the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.

Phillips, only the second director in the museum’s history, is credited with giving it a new home in lower Manhattan — an eye-catching building designed by Japanese architecture firm Sanaa — and adding an urban think tank and a tech-business incubator. She is now planning a $63 million expansion, designed by the firm of "starchitect" Rem Koolhaas.

Regarded as one of the more powerful art museum directors in America, Phillips has been paid accordingly — $768,000 before a 30% cut as part of the belt-tightening related to the pandemic — a salary higher than those of other executives who lead museums of its size. By comparison, James Rondeau at the Art Institute of Chicago earns about the same amount but oversees a museum with a budget of more than $100 million and a full-time staff of 695.

Her compensation became part of the conversation when the union at the museum pressed for higher wages last year. Working in a nonprofit often involves low pay. But the new union, whose creation Phillips had fought, argued that low-level employees were earning unlivable wages (starting at $35,000 a year).

“Her salary was outsized for the size of the museum and the rest of the staff was very low paid,” said Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, which includes MoMA.

The workers argued for a base salary of $51,000 a year; the museum ultimately agreed to $46,000.

The pay issue was exacerbated by physical working conditions that some art handlers described as unsafe due to rushed deadlines and the building’s limitations.

Because the museum lacks a dedicated freight elevator, for example, artwork has sometimes been moved by art handlers who had to stand atop the passenger elevator, a practice to which Kovey, the former registrar, said she objected.

“I just told my supervisor that I cannot be involved with this,” Kovey said.

Several recent staff members said exhibits were often installed into the night because the museum fails to budget adequate time for complex shows, often changes decisions at the last minute and does not want to lose admission revenue by closing galleries between exhibitions.

The museum said it is scrupulous about all safety protocols and has “built in more turnaround time for exhibitions.”

Another former employee expressed concern about the museum’s transparency on financial issues. E. Annette Nash Govan said that, as the museum’s chief financial officer in 2015, she was chastised for informing the board’s finance committee that the museum had a severe cash crunch and was having a hard time covering payroll.

Govan said she was subsequently fired, less than a year into the job, and that Phillips told her it was because Govan had conveyed bad news to the board.

“I wanted to tell the truth,” Govan said. “I believe in honesty, whatever the numbers or the facts reveal.”

The museum responded that it has “a diligent and rigorous governance structure” and makes “full and detailed disclosure” to the board. The board said in its statement that Phillips has always “focused on having a supportive and respectful work environment.”

But several staff members criticized her management style.

“It was emotionally abusive — she really belittled people,” said Erika Anderson, one former executive assistant. “I had to unlearn most of the experience that I gained there and reteach myself how to be a good working professional.”

Sarah Getto, who left after two years as executive assistant in 2017, said the museum lacked the necessary checks and balances. “Normal management systems would have prevented the vast majority of abuses and disorder that I witnessed, but Lisa Phillips does not run the New Museum as an institution,” Getto said. “Because she controls all oversight — including the board — it’s her private fiefdom.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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