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MoMA cuts worker benefits on the heels of demolishing Folk Art Museum

Here’s an argument that’s comically unbelievable: MoMA is so strapped for cash that leadership has no other choice than to cut back its employees’ health care benefits. This is the same museum, mind you, that recently bought and demolished the adjoining, architecturally praised Folk Art Museum, only finished in 2001 and operated until 2011. And why? For the buildings’ aesthetic unity, of course! According to the New York Times, the Folk Art Museum was never considered by MoMA’s trustees as a viable extension because "the building’s design did not fit their plans because the opaque façade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum.” While architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro argue that the building was too idiosyncratically designed to be saved, Martin Filler refutes this assertion in the New York Review of Books, characterizing MoMA Director Glenn Lowry as a bully who attempted to takeover the Rockefeller-gifted Folk Art Museum plot before its construction even began in 1997, and also pushed out legendary curators Kirk Varnedoe and Robert Storr in the early naughts.

Lowry has been in hot water since every New York critic excoriated his decision to give Klaus Biesenbach free reign to curate the starry-eyed “Bjork” earlier this year. And now, the museum is supposedly in financial straits after demolishing the Folk Art Museum, announcing internally that it will cut back employee benefits. According to the Observer, the changes would “require workers to pay up to 15% of the cost of surgery or hospitalization plus higher health care premiums for family coverage.” In response, MoMA employees, 200 of which are members of United Auto Workers Local 2110, staged a protest across the street of the museum’s annual fundraising garden party.

It’s extremely disconcerting that MoMA, one of America’s premier cultural institutions would act with no more integrity than a bank or corporation with no respect for their workers’ quality of life. In Hyperallergic’s coverage of the event, protestor and MoMA employee Victoria Wong notes that the museum staff already work uncompensated overtime hours out of their dedication to the museum. "Quite honestly, we have a lot of people working many, many overtime hours, the majority of which are uncompensated…So when they say we’ve been financially strained, we need you guys to make contributions by raising our premiums, raising our deductions, raising everything, it’s kind of insulting. We are a museum, we’re a social, cultural institution, and that ethos should be trickling down in its business practices.”

If MoMA is in such a dire financial situation it has to cut back on the basic benefits of its workers, why is it building an expansion that itself will cost millions to complete and millions to maintain? A quick look at MoMA’s financial report for the 2014 fiscal year will reveal that the institution certainly isn’t struggling–its investments and endowments actually grew considerably from the previous year. Further, the demolition and weak attempt at preserving the Folk Art Museum contradicts the museum’s purported interest in sustainable architecture. Hypocrisies abound, these latest cuts continuing a string of missteps alienating MoMA’s core audience and staff. Whatever Lowry’s motivations for the cutbacks, it seems a dangerous game.

*Image of MoMA protest courtesy New York Observer