The cruel hypocrisy of the woke art world

Most museums now say they are committed to social justice. So why are so many laying off workers en masse?

Michael Pearce


Pity the lowest-paid members of the staff of America’s museums, who are being laid off because of Covid-19. The fearful virus has forced many cultural institutions to close. In normal times, these museums are notoriously keen to fly the woke flag. But making their minimum-wage workers unemployed at a time when they have minimal chances of finding a new job is clearly not a progressive thing to do.

In 2016, more than 50 representatives from important American museums attended the convening of a super-woke organisation called Museum As Site for Social Action, or MASS. Its mission statement says: ‘MASS Action is dedicated to eradicating the fallacy that museums are or have ever been neutral spaces. We believe museums can either choose to engage the social, political and economic realities that impact every aspect of life for the communities they serve or let their silence implicate them in their complacency.’ The convention marked the initiation of a three-year project to promote social justice in the museum world, continuing the conquest of the art establishment by political activists.

Members of the convocation were instructed that their institutions must take action to bring the world toward utopia. These actions included: ‘Reconciling with communities for past injustices; creating pathways for communities to lead museum acts of engagement at every level; instituting fair labour / wage standards for communities and individuals that support museums in this work; understanding coded words and concepts that hinder change and re-inscribe inequities to the benefit of museums.’ Other goals of MASS Action are ‘decentering whiteness’, ‘dismantling white supremacy and privileging of elitist ways’, and ‘becoming exemplars and catalysts for democratic practices and equity’.

Take the Portland Art Museum, based in one of the wokest cities in the US. The museum was part of the MASS Action convocations. Its administration has publicly declared its commitment to equity and diversity. The museum’s equity statement goes so far as to say that its new role of confronting bias in the present can create tension with the museum’s usual function of ‘preserving the past’. The museum’s website warns that even its own collection must be approached with caution by visitors because ‘influential elements of political, cultural and economic systems maintain injustice and inequity through the control of power and resources’.

According to Charity Navigator, which lists non-profit performance for philanthropists, the museum’s director, Brian Ferriso, was paid a handsome salary of $374,288 in 2018. Ferriso oversees a well-managed business, which listed financial assets worth just under $141million, with an income surplus that year of $4million. Given this handsome endowment, where is the museum leadership’s support for its community of workers?

The epidemic has killed entrance-fee revenues to the museum. But even before the crisis hit, the well-endowed museum was cutting jobs. Fourteen staff were let go in the summer of 2019, saving the museum $450,000. This was a strange way of supporting MASS Action’s demand that member institutions institute ‘fair labour / wage standards’. In response to the coronavirus crisis, Ferriso has sent a memo to his employees promising ‘deep staff reductions’.

The woke Portland museum’s dismal failure to support its community of workers is only the sharp point of the spike piercing the hypocritical heart of American art museums. New York’s Whitney Museum has laid off 76 employees during the shutdown. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has laid off all of its part-time employees and has stopped paying its full-time workers since 17 April.

While all these well-endowed museums are thrusting their lowest-paid workers into the unemployment office, some American companies are going out of their way to help their employees survive with self-respect.

Kent Taylor, founder of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain, is giving up his paycheck and bonuses of over $1.3million to support his employees. Starbucks has told its enormous barista workforce that they can expect to be paid for a month while the quarantine is in effect, even if their branch is closed or they don’t feel comfortable going to work.

Home Depot – which is designated as an essential service and is remaining open – is paying full-time workers over the age of 65 for an additional 160 hours of paid time off. Its part-timers are being paid for an additional 80 hours of time off. If its workers are diagnosed with Covid-19 or are advised by health or government officials to self-quarantine, they will continue to be paid.

But while these admirable companies are supporting their workers in difficult times, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has abandoned all 85 of its gig-economy education workers.

MoMA director Glen Lowry is paid an annual salary of over $2.2million. In addition, a Rockefeller trust fund called the New York Fine Arts Support Trust gave Lowry $5.35million in 2005 as part of the museum’s bait to persuade him to become its director. MOMA also provides Lowry and his wife with a rent-free apartment worth $6million. The museum has assets valued at over a billion dollars.

In a press release announcing the abandonment of its minimum wage part-timers, throwing them into the thin arms of the American welfare system, MoMA said: ‘We are deeply grateful for their past contributions. We wish them and their loved ones safety and health in this difficult time.’ Thoughts and prayers, in other words. Unemployed workers must feel honoured and delighted to receive MOMA’s good wishes, but they can’t spend good wishes on their bills.

Neal Benezra, director of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, takes home a salary of almost $1million. In 2018, the museum had assets worth $737million at its disposal. In the summer of 2019, the museum sold a Rothko for over $50million – apparently in order to ‘diversify’ its collection and ‘address historical gaps’. It spent the proceeds on art by Alma Thomas, Kay Sage, Frank Bowling, Leonora Carrington, Mickalene Thomas, Barry McGee and Rebecca Belmore. This woke museum is laying off 135 staff and furloughing over 200.

Well-endowed, woke museums treat the minimum-wage workers and giggers of the ‘art community’ as disposable minions. Clearly, woke posturing is no substitute for taking real care of workers.

Michael Pearce is founder and chair of The Representational Art Conference (TRAC). He is the author of Art in the Age of Emergence.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the Portland Museum of Art, which is based in Portland, Maine, instead of the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon.

Picture by: Alex Proimos, published under a creative-commons licence.

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Jane 70

21st April 2020 at 12:30 pm

So woke-waffle trumps job security and decent wages for the lower orders, who, presumably, are disposable assets ,collateral damage, in the onward march towards the progressive utopia which awaits those of us who are suitably wealthy, on message and diverse. (That’s me out.)

Has anyone else noticed the constant reiteration of ‘love’? Next it will be a variation on ‘Don’t look back in anger’ when poverty and unemployment take their toll.

Peter Schnore

21st April 2020 at 9:52 pm

Please reword that in American English.

Vivian Darkbloom

3rd May 2020 at 10:30 pm

Righty-ho, I’ll have a crack at it matey. As those cultural commentators Beavis & Butthead might say, “it sucks”. I hope their exegesis doesn’t contain too many words for you. Toodle pip mon brave.

Puddy Cat

21st April 2020 at 12:04 pm

If museums were localised, had their locally sourced artefacts back, then a huge amount of exhibit currently held in London would disappear back to the shires. I feel sure that if Shell, or whoever, decided to sponsor a major art exhibit in my dirty old town that the hoi polloi would throng to it in numbers, rather than picket against some sort of ephemeral ideal.

The woke in the acting fraternity are the biggest bugbear, constantly going on about social justice and all the observation of materialism and yet stubbornly refusing to go and peddle their wares outside the capital, the roar of the greasepaint but the smell of the crowd, pooh.

Art is such an odd topic. From the study of the pictorial, which in former times people would have undertaken as a hobby, to the suggestion that people who play instruments well are intellectual paragons rather than an example of the savant. The amount of fawning that fills radio three is, in some measure, the equivalent of the baby talk and excited listening deployed by those fierce opponents of racism that speak to their subjects like mummies and their darling children.

The grim efforts of the bbc to get down with youth is stomach churning. Art has been taken over as a solely liberal pursuit and just another thing shouting, ‘we will only mix with people that live like us’, all others are barbarians, probably fascist and certainly Conservatives.

If Conservatives, after their hammer to the red wall, really want to prove their credentials apropos their new electorate, they could do worse than premeditate the American action depicted here by taking art (of the substantive sort) to the shires. How in the world has so much outside London managed to culture itself when so removed from any sort of informing example? Now that we have many expressions of society and good nature, coming together, its reward should be gratifying that great swathe of sentience with something to set its mind on; should we ever return to normality. A thing that could be achieved at little cost but with the thanks of this and those generations to come.

Susan Whitley

21st April 2020 at 3:40 pm

“then a huge amount of exhibit currently held in London would disappear back to the shires. I feel sure that if Shell, or whoever, decided to sponsor a major art exhibit in my dirty old town that the hoi polloi would throng to it in numbers”

The Royal Armouries Museum Leeds has never attracted the numbers it hoped for. The Pop Museum in Sheffield didn’t even survive. You can’t transplant a museum from London to a city with little tourism and expect it to continue as before.

Branches, such as the V&A in Dundee, have performed better.

Dominic Straiton

21st April 2020 at 11:29 am

I detest their entire bullshit made up language.

Gordon Le Gopher

21st April 2020 at 4:22 pm

Language just evolves. “Naughty” used to mean someone who is poor – as in they have zero or naught. “Nice” was from a Latin word which meant ignorant.

Even stranger; “liberal” used to just mean a free man and “nob” use to mean a person of wealth. And now both have merged into pretty much the same meaning, but very different from their original.

Gordon Le Gopher

21st April 2020 at 4:30 pm

Also “woke” is the past tense of wake. “Wake” means to be conscious from a state of sleep. So the past tense “woke” being you’re back into unconscious sleep. Presumably.

Rance Lichlin

21st April 2020 at 7:57 pm

All languages are made up…

Peter Schnore

21st April 2020 at 9:55 pm

Please slow down. Don’t hyperventilate if you intend reasonable people to engage.

a watson

21st April 2020 at 9:24 am

At the National Gallery and the British Museum most of the front line staff are not British born. Perhaps this is because they cannot find any locally born Londoners to be able to afford to live on the salaries offered.

Mark Houghton

21st April 2020 at 8:48 am

I think food on the table may prove to be a lot more useful than museums as this crisis develops. And those who had bullshit jobs in the arts will find out just how useful their skill sets will be.

Highland Fleet Lute

21st April 2020 at 8:45 am

“According to Charity Navigator, which lists non-profit performance for philanthropists, the museum’s director, Brian Ferriso, was paid a handsome salary of $374,288 in 2018. Ferriso oversees a well-managed business, which listed financial assets worth just under $141million, with an income surplus that year of $4million. Given this handsome endowment, where is the museum leadership’s support for its community of workers?”

No need, it’s a workers spew-topia where everyone is expected to live on “aura”..

Jonnie Henly

21st April 2020 at 3:41 am

If “woke” was actually a clearly defined term and not a meaningless buzzword this article might be more worthwhile.

brent mckeon

21st April 2020 at 7:57 am

Why don’t you comment on the content of the article, which is PC very rich woke museums doing terrible things to its lowest paid workers, while the upper manage continue to wallow in high paid luxury. FYI the word woke comes from the chattering Left who are proud to wear it as a badge of honour, so please do not attack Spike for using their PC word.

Gordon Le Gopher

21st April 2020 at 10:00 am

The point of most Spiked articles on “woke” is to point out it’s a meaningless buzzword.

Similarly “political correctness” isn’t actually correct and “virtue signalling” isn’t actually virtuous.

Gordon Le Gopher

21st April 2020 at 12:30 am

Usually the more someone publicly declares something, the less like that thing they actually are.

See also ‘liberals’, ‘progressives’ etc

steven brook

21st April 2020 at 11:57 am

Exactly! My mother used to say that she didn’t care what the neighbours thought. We can be certain of one thing she did and that’s why she said it. Institutional hypocrisy needs to be called out, saying one thing and doing another is an obnoxious trait in an individual, in an organisation it is positively dangerous.

Rance Lichlin

21st April 2020 at 8:00 pm

Like people who constantly attest to how great their country is, right?

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