We the undersigned write with grave concern about a growing trend of layoffs targeting education staff at major global museums in the name of COVID-19. Museums—including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Mass MoCA, the Serralves Foundation, and many others—have recently reported redundancies, many of them affecting freelance and part-time educators and, in the case of the MoMA, offering no horizon of re-employment. Far from redundant, such workers—employed to give tours, design and develop programs for schools and communities of all ages—are at the heart of museum and gallery work.
As those most in touch with communities outside of the museum, educators push criticality and innovation. Their work is regularly used to attract donors and supporters to many institutions. That they are first in the line of fire for layoffs is disconcerting, to say the least.
This is especially true as gallery education posts are more often to be those in which women, people of color, and members of the working-class are employed to work with communities who are not members of the cultural elite. At a moment when museums and galleries claim an interest in their diversification, why do they de-fund the very people and communities made most vulnerable by the current crisis?
We find this treatment of educators to be a great tragedy in a moment when their skill-sets—meaning-making, public engagement, community care and support—are more essential than ever. This could be a moment in which to utilize these skills to offer more to communities than virtual museum tours. Instead of retrenching museums into conservative modes of exclusionary content dissemination, a more forward-thinking stance would be to intensify the educational dimension of their offer in this moment of fear, loss and community re-organization, and to prioritize relationships with their most excluded groups.
Sadly, the reported layoffs follow years of precarity for museum and gallery educators and other cultural workers, who are rendered dispensable in times of economic or social uncertainty. While our letter is focused on the situation of educators, we stand with cleaners, porters, visitor service staff and other low paid and precarious workers in museums and galleries and call on their employers to reverse these layoffs and to offer fairly paid, secure and protected contracts for all cultural workers.
We implore museums and galleries to take this opportunity to re-imagine—with their workers and their communities—the role of culture in the time of COVID-19 and its aftermath. And we ask those museums who are already doing so to step forward and speak out on behalf of education and other essential workers targeted by these cuts.
List of signatories here.
From top: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018, Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, photograph by Elon Schoenholz; Museum of Modern Art, New York City, photograph by Lauren Cavalli; Mass MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, photograph by Jessica Rinaldi; Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal, photograph courtesy of the foundation. Images courtesy and © the institutions and the photographers.