“What would a museum that acted on behalf of its community actually look like?”
That’s the question motivating the anonymous coalition founded in 2020 called Artists for Workers. Based in New York but with international ties, the group is using design, hacking, and other creative skills to propose an answer.
Their first action is www.newmuseum.net, an alternate New Museum website that looks almost identical to the original, but pointedly lambastes the institution, which projects itself as a progressive and inclusive space while simultaneously facing criticism over its treatment of staff, low pay, and poor management.
The parody site envisions what the landing page of a truly radical museum might look like (one that for now, at least, remains imaginary). Under subheadings like “What’s On,” for instance, images and information on current exhibitions “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” and “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” have been replaced with social justice initiatives like “Occupy City Hall,” “How to Topple a Public Statue,” and links to organizations promoting Police Abolition and a list-serve of resources to end systemic racism.
The group also created a series of posters mimicking the design of the New Museum, which were pasted on its entrance as well as on boards at the nearby MoMA Design Store in SoHo that read “New Museum same old bullshit” and “No museum/No sanctuary/No justice,” according to Hyperallergic.
The satirical newmuseum.net website includes links to real news stories about New York institutions the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA PS1 opening their lobbies and bathrooms as places to rest and refuel for protesters marching as part of the recent Justice for George Floyd protests. The New Museum, on the other hand, remained boarded up and dark.
In a statement to Artnet News, the members of AFW emphasized that “[i]t’s no wonder that an institution which closed its doors to the Black Lives Matter movement also actively works against the union being formed by its workers.”
In January 2019, employees at the museum began to organize in an effort to unionize, prompted by meager salaries that employees said were untenable. In response, the museum hired a notorious anti-union law firm to represent their interests, setting off weeks of tension between staff and management. An overwhelming majority voted to join Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, and eventually negotiated a favorable contract that increased pay, health benefits, and time off for unionized workers.
In April, in the wake of closures forced by the pandemic, the New Museum furloughed 41 full- and part-time members of its staff of 150 and laid off an additional seven employees whose programs were either reduced or discontinued. This week, just as Artists for Workers was taking aim at the institution, management instituted a fresh round of layoffs.
According to a statement from the New Museum Union, 18 people who had previously been furloughed were affected, including 11 who were union members. The Union’s unit chair and two stewards were part of that group. (The New Museum did not immediately respond to a press inquiry about the layoffs.)
“The New Museum continues to refuse to share any information regarding possible scenarios for their reopening plans,” the Union stated in a press release. “The only information they have shared with the Union in this regard is that the Museum does not plan to close permanently.”