We Were Already Expendable: Contract work and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Leah Constantine

This is a moment of permanent transformation for cultural institutions. Those that remain will not return their operations to normal and many will be forced to make critical changes in their practices for the future. The likely future for cultural institutions will not only need to support the demands of a larger and more digitally literate audience but, more importantly, will foster a more progressive and just environment for what remains of its staff. The transformation within working environments will be critical if institutions hope to become sustainable and adaptable to the environments ahead. For contract workers, those environments were unsustainable and inequitable long before this crisis. 

When institutions eventually make the transition to reopen, operations in-house will be minimized while the normal environments for engagement will become heavily digital and physical spaces within museums, libraries, and archives will be drastically reimagined to meet the needs for public health and safety of visitors and essential staff. Both national and international travel will take years for major cities to recover, and many museums will see this as the greatest impact in restructuring what used to be their normal operations. With new guidelines from the CDC being enforced for public spaces, museums will need to create the best redesign of its in-gallery spaces to reduce the physical capacity of staff and visitors for special exhibitions and education programs. Even when doors to museums and other cultural institutions reopen, they will always have the larger digital audience to continue supporting. During this time of transition, leadership will look to their remaining staff to support all new ideas and operations with fewer resources to fulfill them. Likely, most of the support that could have advanced these radical changes into real practice once existed in young or early career contracted employees, and the many institutions that have laid off those employees will soon realize they cannot make these changes without them. The radical organizers and the innovative thinkers that once existed in the museum were potentially the first groups eliminated, and institutions will have a hard time seeing any of them come back. What does this mean for the future of those institutions and the people who have left them?

The recent scrutiny and comprehensive documentation of massive disparities between laid-off employees and high-paid salaries for executive leaders make it clear that many institutions will be struggling to support what remains of their staff for years to come. A group of NYU graduate students and cultural workers are currently collecting the incomes of highest paid salaries in institutions and comparing them to the salaries of rank-and-file staff. The spreadsheet, “Indebted Cultural Workers: Calculate Your Salary,” has received salary data from 29 institutions, and data collection is still ongoing. Another spreadsheet creating waves in the museum world was made by Michelle Moon and the group Art + Museum Transparency. The spreadsheet was created in March and is documenting the impact of layoffs and furloughs as well as information about pay cuts and reduced hours of work in American museums during the pandemic. So far, 166 museums have been added to the list, and information about layoffs and furloughs is updated continuously. This comes a year after Kimberly Drew spoke at the AAM Keynote on her experience of receiving an inequitable salary in her role as Social Media Manager for The Met and later the massively widespread documentation of museum worker salaries created by Michelle Millar Fisher and colleagues at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. So many professionals enter the nonprofit world of museums, libraries, and archives being told to never expect to make enough money and to avoid discussing the struggles of low wages. Why is it okay that those same institutions create millionaires that live exclusively at the top and never have to worry about the impact of their wages? Documenting this injustice is at the heart of these movements and profoundly important to those that contribute to them. 

While all employees of cultural institutions have been impacted by this crisis, contract workers are realizing their future is at more of a risk than ever before. There are many different types of contracts used for work in cultural institutions, but all have been greatly affected, emotionally, and professionally, during this crisis. It is difficult to determine what the future of contract work will be, but what is apparent is how it needs to change. This crisis has revealed the great challenges of relying on temporary staff for fundamental work. There is no sustainable future for institutions that continue to rely on radical ideas and progressive skills in temporary contracted employees. Those institutions that hope to return to their “normal” operations will suffer, and those who try to adapt without the skilled staff to support them will struggle. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City touts a mission statement founded on education as its core practice, yet took to firing all contract and freelance educators in this crisis. Some leadership roles in the same institution are still making salaries of over one million dollars a year. This is an injustice. If a museum cannot prioritize its mission statement by supporting opportunities for education and championing the workers in that field, then its leadership has failed. When the MoMA plans to reopen, how will it appeal to future educators when filling those vacancies to create a more progressive and accessible program? And, if it doesn’t restructure the education system, how will it change its mission statement to reflect these changes? 

There may have been a time when budget restrictions and rapidly changing environments would have justified a contracted job for a temporary project. Today, most of these positions are created out of convenience for the institution. An institution that relies on freelance and contract positions to create and disseminate fundamental knowledge has no real priority for that practice. Too many contracted positions are created to fulfill temporary needs for ongoing projects that are typically geared towards early career and diversely skilled professionals. These professionals constantly struggle with maintaining the expectation of having to learn new skills and participate in multiple projects to feel prepared for the constantly changing work environment that is a result of all contract work. The unfavorable consequence of temporary contract work is that the employees are expected to fulfill accelerated expectations in an extremely limited time frame. The stressful and unstable environment is made more so by needing to prove one’s worth as essential while still seeking new opportunities when the contract comes to an end or a sudden change affects its terms. Today, we can see that the ongoing instability of using temporary contract work for an institution’s convenience has led to massive layoffs of those positions, deeming them expendable during a time of financial crisis. What this crisis could lead to in the future is a far more challenging effort for institutions to reopen physical spaces and support new and necessary projects. For institutions to prioritize a radical new future for their operations, they must first prioritize their staff who can make this future a reality. 

I am currently employed through a temporary contract and am fortunate to know others in this same position who are willing to openly discuss the ongoing struggle of being considered expendable while our work is considered fundamental, even after we’re gone. I struggle, like many others, in trying to find the balance between creating the best work for my institution and my team while also knowing that the best work I can do may not mean anything once my contract has reached its term. A friend who is also on a temporary contract with his institution shared that his efforts just to validate his work are an additional stressor to an already stressful and uncertain job environment. In response to the overwhelming uncertainty of our work in contract positions, he shared, “The contract economy can skew a professional’s sense of their own value and their own potential because of the anxiety associated with meeting the expectations required to simply keep a job going from year to year. As a result, it can be challenging to see oneself in many job opportunities (faculty, tenure, etc.) which value more than just a healthy pace of statistics.” For him, this expanded effort in his work still does not create certainty that his temporary position would ever become permanent, and efforts to look for other job opportunities are thwarted due to the lack of having any mental bandwidth left to take on this additional responsibility. It is a stressful and toxic environment that has led to pressuring contract workers to accept minimal rewards for maximum efforts. The longer we stay in a contract, the more uncertain our future seems to be. When asked if this crisis could potentially lead to fewer temporary contracted jobs in the future, he responded honestly, “I have no evidence to believe that our generation will be awarded permanent positions if we do enough time on the contract circuit.” The time we have spent in this work will mean nothing if all rank-and-file jobs in cultural institutions are in jeopardy. What was uncertain before has become even more uncertain in our future.

A previous survey by Collections on Contract demonstrated the effects of contracting work for many of the young or early career professionals who fill these roles. Many of those who contributed have likely been furloughed or laid off in recent weeks with no promise of being rehired and little confidence in re-entering an already limited field. Institutions who have contributed to this devastating statistic have shown that the value of an employee can be directly reflected by their status in the institution as expendable. Losing all of these employees could be just as detrimental to an institution’s future as the current crisis has already proven. The crisis today has exposed many of the embedded inequalities that have existed in museums, libraries, and archives for decades. It should no longer be tolerable or sustainable to maintain massive salaries at the top while a majority of the most fundamental staff are kept at the bottom with restricted pay, temporary retainment, and expendable treatment. So many of these expendable employees could have been future leaders, and hopefully, some will still go on to fulfill those roles. But, for young professionals and contract employees, the first wave of firings will likely lead to more uncertainty for the future. Leaders of change are ready for this opportunity to reshape the way cultural institutions have always functioned. Many just have no idea if they will be able to return.

This is the time for reorganizing and reevaluating the way cultural institutions prioritize funds and create inequalities. It is up to all former and existing staff to hold current members of leadership accountable in creating a safer workplace for all employees to return to. Seeing how uncertain the future is for cultural institutions, it is likely that opportunities for permanent, non-contracted work will be extraordinarily sparse. This should not be an opportunity to continue normalizing the practice of hiring expendable staff in temporary contracts to fulfill fundamental needs for the institution. In our new normal, hiring practices and professional environments should become just as progressive and equitable as the physical environments that are being created for visitors. 

One thought on “We Were Already Expendable: Contract work and the COVID-19 Pandemic

  1. “This is the time for reorganizing and reevaluating the way cultural institutions prioritize funds and create inequalities.”

    Absolutely! And not a moment too soon.

    I think that part of this reevaluation might be found in taking a closer look at how we (museums) get our resources, as well as how we spend them. A common theme that keeps emerging with all of the massive layoffs and furloughs is that because museums aren’t bringing in revenue, they can’t afford to keep their staff. That makes sense on the surface. If you’re a movie theater, you aren’t selling any tickets right now and will have to let your staff go. No sales = no paychecks.

    But the movies will be okay by themselves in the dark, and when it’s safe to go to the movies again, finding the personnel to operate theaters should be feasible. Museums are more complex, and the needs of their collections are ongoing whether or not they have any visitors. Many of the duties performed require highly specialized knowledge, and building a cohesive team of curators, technicians, interpreters, educators, etc. is an organic process that takes time. That process is harder to carry out when a significant percentage of your staff is contingent or temporary.

    “Restarting” our museums will involve a lot more than just opening the doors and turning the lights back on. We can do it (we’ll have to), but simply going “back to normal” might be missing some opportunities to become stronger.

    One area to examine might be not only where we spend our dollars but how we ask for them. Generally, it seems like we ask for big dollar support for specific things – new exhibits, renovations, programs, etc., while we don’t ask for help with general operating funds. I’m told by development professionals throughout the nonprofit world that this is because our donors prefer not to simply “write a blank check” to supply unrestricted funds, and prefer to support specific initiatives. This has created some remarkable absurdities, where a museum spends $100 million on their building and yet can’t afford to pay all of their staff a living wage. In addition to creating these glaring inequities, it also leaves us dependent on earned revenue (entry ticket sales, store sales, etc.) to pay for just about all of the positions that aren’t funded by endowments. Right now, earned revenue is gone, and so are thousands of jobs.

    I’m wondering if we might have more success asking for unrestricted contributions (to fund staff salaries) if we make ourselves (literally, our people) more visible. That means not just that our faces are seen, it means greater transparency. If our donors (and board members) don’t have a very deep understanding of who we are, what we do, and what educations we must have in order to do it, maybe asking them to pay our salaries seems like asking them to toss money into a black hole, with no real idea of what it does.

    Could museums do more to enlighten them about this? If the goal is not just bringing in more money to pay for staff, but also ensuring that it is distributed more equitably, we might need to have some very frank and possibly uncomfortable conversations. How might a donor who finances a major art acquisition feel if they learn that the conservator who cares for it has to work a second job on the weekends in order to pay the rent and their student loans for the Master’s degree that they needed in order to get their museum job? I’ve heard that some of the “young money” (largely those reaping the blessings of the tech sector) donors have more expectations for their philanthropic dollars, and that they’re becoming more interested in making sure that they’re giving their money to organizations who demostrate acceptable or preferred ethics. Some won’t give to organizations who accept money from oil companies, for example. Perhaps some of them value equitable and sustainable salaries for those working within the organization that they aim to support. Maybe if museums make that a priority within their institutions, our donors will respond favorably. But we won’t know if we don’t try, and that will require vision and courage from museum leaders. They’ve already got their hands full now for sure, and right now are probably operating mainly in a defensive mode. But as they move forward, there may be opportunities found in the wake of the COVID crisis, and if those can be recognized and acted upon, the future of museums could perhaps become brighter.


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