MoMA’s Black-Tie Garden Party Drowned Out by Hundreds of Protesting Staffers

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Photo: Nate Freeman

Rain fell on the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Party in the Garden Tuesday night, and its couture-clad trustees had to walk under tarps erected to protect the bar-side crudité and its consumers. Inevitably, some water seeped through.

The other thing that seeped through the tarp was the chants of hundreds of MoMA employees standing sopping wet outside the $100,000-a-table black-tie dinner, protesting a new labor contract proposed by the museum’s management.

Ancient wages, modern art!” they chanted. Some held up big signs: “We Won’t Give Up. We Won’t Give Back” and “First the Matisse cut-outs. Now the benefit cut-outs” and “We deserve a fair contract.” They took up the whole stretch of 54th Street where the VIPs were arriving in big black cars.

The protest had been organized by the UAW Local 2110, which counts 280 professional workers at MoMA as members. It was a response from the museum to cut back on health-care coverage — something that could potentially cost the modestly paid staffers thousands of dollars a year. Management’s proposed raises also didn’t meet the union’s expectations. 

When asked about the dispute, MoMA offered this statement: “At this time, we are in the process of negotiations with Local 2110, and are optimistic that we will reach a positive outcome for the staff and all concerned.”

There’s no word as to whether the union members will go on strike if no resolution is reached, but it’s a possibility. That prospect must be a concern for a museum that’s already had its fair share of problems lately.

Inside the Picasso-laden garden Duponts and Lauders hobnobbed with no fewer than five Rockefellers and some of the most celebrated artists alive, including Kara Walker and Richard Serra, the evening’s honorees. But the picketers were, not surprisingly, far more eager than the guests to speak to reporters. “It’s unconscionable,” said Michelle Fisher, a curatorial assistant at MoMA protesting the gala. “Many people have been asked to take on so much. They’re going to have to go against a $3,000 bill if they want to have a baby.”

People who work in nonprofits don’t make a lot of money,” said Steven Wheeler, a registrar at the museum, who was standing amid the screaming crowd. 

We love this place,” said another female registrar, who chose not to give her name. “We’re just trying to raise our families.”

The protest went on for a few hours, but ended as this year’s concert, featuring the Weeknd, was about to power up and drown out the chants. Or perhaps the growing police presence was the main damper, as two dozen or so cops stood around watching a peaceful protest at an art museum.

Yeah, we’re sending more people here,” one police officer said. “We’re bringing barricades. We’re pretty sure they don’t have permits.”