An artist and Met Museum guard whose new work is about pay: Her own

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An artist and Met Museum guard whose new work is about pay: Her own
Emilie Lemakis, an artist and guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Brooklyn on March 6, 2022. The creation of the buttons was conceived as an art project by Lemakis whose own button lists her years of service and hourly wage. Sarah Blesener/The New York Times.

by Colin Moynihan

NEW YORK, NY.- For decades Emilie Lemakis has made art rooted in the experiences and ephemera of her daily life.

Her work includes abstract charcoal drawings of the kitchen drain and lightbulbs inside the apartment in Boston where she lived during art school. Her “Ceremonial Sit-Down Throne” recognizes the many years she has spent standing guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is an homage to the chair from someone whose work seldom involves the use of one. Its materials include donations from other guards: dry cleaning bags that once held freshly pressed uniforms.

Now she is in the midst of another project that draws upon her position at the museum, a job she said she has loved since she began walking the corridors of the Met in 1994.

In January, she began making buttons for herself and fellow guards that state how long they’ve worked at the museum and how much they are paid per hour. Hers reads “27 Years $22.65 HR.”

Though the buttons present as a gesture of activism for the guards, whose union is in the midst of contract negotiations, Lemakis said she did not begin handing them out as part of any campaign to sway management. To her, the buttons constitute an art project: a commentary on time and money, and a statement that people are not defined by their incomes.

“I had this fantasy of everyone who worked in the museum wearing a button,” she said recently, adding: “A lot of people feel ashamed by what they make, and I think that’s wrong.”

But the conversation these days at the Met and many other museums is often about wages and about the wide gap between the pay for top executives, whose compensation packages can total more than $1 million, and other museum employees. That gap is cited by experts as one of the reasons there has been such success in organizing workers at American museums, where nearly two dozen have seen new bargaining units created in the past three years.

At the Met, neither Local 1503 of District Council 37, which has long represented the museum’s guards, nor museum management would discuss the contract negotiations, saying that to do so could be counterproductive to reaching an agreement.

In December, the museum raised the starting hourly wage for guards from $15.51 to $16.50 to attract more candidates. The earnings of guards at the Met would appear to be in line with broad industry standards as reported in a 2021 salary survey by the Association of Art Museum Directors. It put the mean earnings for museum guards in fiscal 2020 at $39,300 per year. (The mean for museums with operating budgets of $20 million or more was $42,700, according to the survey.)

Still, the Met, one of the largest museums in the world, acknowledged with the boost in starting pay that it had faced some trouble finding candidates in a labor market that has been highly competitive for lower-wage workers.

The Met, which had employed 400 guards before the pandemic, furloughed, then laid off 120 of them months after the coronavirus began to spread in New York City, closing the museum and causing it to lose revenue. Those guards were eventually offered their jobs back, and dozens returned. With recent hiring, there are now 340 guards on staff at the museum.

Lemakis said she has ordered buttons for about 50 fellow guards who had answered her questions about their years of service and hourly pay. The inch-and-a-quarter buttons are made by a manufacturer she found online. She estimated that as many as a dozen guards had worn the buttons on a given day while patrolling the museum, though she said a supervisor had recently told colleagues they should not be worn on duty.

The Met declined to respond to a question about whether guards had been instructed not to wear Lemakis’ buttons at work.

Lemakis said that no museum bosses had spoken with her about the buttons. She added that her project is not financed or influenced by Local 1503, but acknowledged that some colleagues see the buttons as bolstering the union’s case that they deserve to be paid more — a goal she supports.

The button idea had been percolating for a few years, Lemakis said, adding that, for her, income had become more of a focus when the museum was forced to close temporarily in 2020. Although she still received her pay, Lemakis said, she found it difficult to make ends meet without overtime.

After news spread about the increased starting wage for guards, Lemakis decided to explore what veterans were earning. She found that some of her colleagues had no interest in sharing their salary information, maybe, she said, because they consider it personal.

In that vein, Lemakis said that while working in the galleries she sensed that there were visitors who appeared to read the button on her jacket lapel but seemed reluctant to inquire further.

“People look at my button, but they really don’t know what to say,” Lemakis said. “Only a very particular type of visitor is going to ask about it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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