‘19th-Century Art, Not 19th-Century Wages’: Striking Hispanic Society Staff Picket Outside Chairman Philippe de Montebello’s Home
Union workers rallied outside the house of de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum.
After more than three weeks on strike, staff of New York’s Hispanic Society Museum and Library, a cultural outpost for Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American art, took the picket line to the Park Avenue apartment of Philippe de Montebello, the institution’s chairman and former director of the Met Museum.
“Shame on Philippe,” cried union members demanding a fair contract and their supporters. They held up union logos and handmade signs bearing slogans such as “19th-century art, not 19th-century wages” and chanted in both English and Spanish for roughly an hour. De Montebello never emerged from the 32-story building.
“Since Philippe’s not paying attention to our demands, we’re bringing the strike to his door,” print, photography, and sculpture curator Patrick Lenaghan, who has worked at the museum for 28 years, told Artnet News at the protest, adding that he hoped that the march would highlight “the contrast between someone who lives on the Upper East Side and our public who aren’t getting their programming.”
The Washington Heights museum closed in January 2017 for what was then described as a $15 million renovation project. The strike—the first for a New York museum in over 20 years—has delayed plans to reopen the society’s main building at the Audubon Terrace museum complex, which had been scheduled for April 6.
A spokesperson for the museum said it still plans to open this spring, and the delay was also due in part to the need to install an ADA-accessible ramp at the building’s entrance. (A show of José Clemente Orozco drawings that was set to open in March in the basement galleries is now slated for a June 22 opening.)
Since the closure, the Hispanic Society has staged exhibitions from its collection at institutions around the world, with a tour that kicked off at El Museo del Prado in Madrid. But now striking workers are concerned that there is no funding for the institution’s masterplan, and no timeline for the full-scale reopening.
“The art is scheduled to be traveling until 2024 or 2026, so we don’t see a reopening any time soon,” Lenaghan said. “What they call a reopening, they were going to reopen the Sorolla Room and hang maybe 10 paintings. That is not a reopening of the Hispanic society as people knew it before it closed.”
The museum countered that the initial exhibition plan for the main gallery will be a celebration of the centenaries of both Joaquin Sorolla and Jesus Rafael Soto—who died and were born in 1923, respectively—with about 18 works in total.
The touring collection exhibition just closed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until earlier this month, and those works are slated return to view in the fall.
Other planned loans “are smaller projects that are not in competition with the programming at the museum,” the statement noted, adding that where the museum had previously kept its main gallery display “rather static, the plan is now to have two rotations every year.”
Workers first moved to unionize in May 2021, after the Hispanic Society board terminated staff pension funds, jeopardizing the retirement plans for workers who had been there for decades. They joined the Technical, Office, and Professional Union, Local 2110, part of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union.
The labor conflicts at the Hispanic Society reflect a growing unionization movement in the museum sector.
“Museum workers are just really fed up with the way they have been undervalued and under-recognized,” Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110, told Artnet News at the protest.
The Hispanic Society bargaining unit is small, at just 19 members. But the rally drew about 50 people, including fellow union members from other institutions, such as the nearby Jewish Museum, which is also currently in contract negotiations after voting to unionize in January 2022.
Workers at the Hispanic Society voted to strike after contract negotiations stalled. The administration wanted to change the benefits plan so that premiums and deductibles, previously covered by the museum, would now fall to employees.
The two sides met with a federal mediator on April 3, with the museum offering a compromise position in which it would continue all health care benefits for current employees, but future hires would be responsible for 10 to 25 percent of their health care premiums, depending on salary. The current offer also increases the minimum salary range from $52,000 to $95,000, based on the position.
“This proposal is very competitive in the New York museum landscape, even compared to much wealthier cultural organizations,” the museum said in a statement, noting that the “recent behavior of union members, who were reported harassing and/or bullying other employees, interns, and fellows, has become an object of serious concern.”
“We’re asking to keep what we already have—they’re asking for cuts,” Rosenstein said. “It would not take a lot of money to settle this strike. It’s so disrespectful.”
“[The administration] pretend[s] that we are the greedy ones,” John O’Neill, the museum’s curator of manuscripts and rare books, added at the rally’s closing remarks.
Targeting De Montebello was a strategic move for the union, as the chairman is well known for his 31 years at the helm of the Metropolitan Museum. De Montebello has led the Hispanic Society as chairman since 2015, taking up the post with the professed goal of increasing foot traffic to the museum, which is off the beaten path for most New Yorkers.
But when Artnet News editor-in-chief Andrew Goldstein asked in 2017 whether “it’s easier to bring the Hispanic Society’s collection to other museums than it is to get people to actually go up to 155th Street to visit the museum,” De Montebello responded that “for the moment, that is certainly the case.” Six years later, that still seems to be the institution’s preferred approach.
For Hispanic Society staff, the closure, which threatens to drag on indefinitely, has gotten more challenging in the past two years, according to Lenaghan, with only one curator and conservator where there were formerly three of each.
“This commitment to extensive exhibitions outside our building, that puts a stress on the curators, conservators, and collections management resources,” Lenaghan said. “The bulk of the hiring of happens for administration and executive assistants while the key tasks of collection management are being ignored.”
A spokesperson said that the museum plans to hire additional staff “in the near future,” including a curator of arts from Latin America and Latino art, a conservator for works on paper, and a director of exhibitions.
The union fears that this comes at the expense of the society’s impressive collection, which includes masterpieces by the likes of Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco, as well as a massive library of historic manuscripts. When a shipment of works that had been on view in London arrived at the Hispanic Society on April 13, some staff alleged careless handling of valuable art by contractors used in place of professional art handlers.
Photographs from the union allegedly show an unattended truck holding $200 million of art, and a crate containing the museum’s famed Goya canvas Duchess of Alba, being rolled down Broadway amid busy traffic.
The delivery was “properly handled and went smoothly as expected,” the museum told Hyperallergic. In a statement, the museum accused the union members of “try[ing] to disrupt the transportation and safe delivery of the artwork” by “actively distracting the art handlers and offensively addressing them with false and defamatory names.”
With the strike soon to stretch into its fourth week, union workers hope that the museum will agree to a single-tiered health care system, reasonable raises, and 401k benefits to replace the pension plan.
“The museum can do it—it’s in their power. We’re asking that they treat the staff with respect and dignity,” Lenaghan said. “This is a strike that didn’t need to happen.”
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