PRINT December 1973

Strike at the Modern

ON OCTOBER 15, 1973 two editors of Artforum Lawrence Alloway and John Coplans—interviewed four members of the strike committee of PASTA (The Professional and Administrative Staff Association of The Museum of Modern Art) Susan Bertram (Senior Program Assistant, International Program), Jane Fluegel (Associate Editor, Publications), Jennifer Licht (Associate Curator, Painting and Sculpture), and Joan Rabenau (Administrative Assistant, Education). The questions posed by the editors are in italics, and the answers given by the four staff members have been set in roman type. Artforum contacted The Museum of Modern Art, informed the directorship of this interview, and offered equal space in a subsequent issue for a discussion of the problems of that institution. This offer was refused on the grounds that such an interview might compromise settlement of the strike.

To the outsider the PASTA strike looks like a classic collision between what’s obviously a self-interested trade-union group attempting certain nominal internal reforms. We can’t gather from the press releases the ideological basis from which those reforms are urged. Your press releases stay very much to bread-and-butter union kind of stuff, but you’re not made up of quite the sort of people who usually express yourselves in that way. I take it there’s a difference between your formal goals and the statements.

That’s absolutely true. The union group is composed of many different elements. From the curatorial point of view, the union began mostly because we thought the Museum was being dreadfully mismanaged. But in the press releases it’s down to basic issues at the moment. It’s difficult to write a press release that’s useful for the Daily News and for Artforum simultaneously. If we talk about the issue of challenged titles, of whether or not a curator should be included in the bargaining unit, or if we talk about why the professional staff should have participation on the Board of Trustees, it is not readily understood by the man in the street. We are accountable to those people as well.

So your press releases have all been beamed at nonspecialized audiences then?

They also reflect the majority of staff in the union. That’s the other thing. The curatorial people are actually relatively few.

Of the different interests within the union, which do you think is the dominant group if it isn’t the curatorial one?

I really don’t think there’s a dominant group and I think that’s sensational. Everybody has given way. At some points or other we’re told we’re harping too much on curatorial issues, and we’ve let them go, too, at least for the moment. The union represents a full gamut of titles, from waitresses and secretaries through associate curators, registration and conservation staff, administrative positions, librarians, etc. I think that everyone has begun to coalesce in a way that wasn’t even foreseen by our members. We are a disparate group, but we have stayed together. It has been valuable, but it hasn’t been easy to pick a single headline point and say “We’re taking our stand on this.” For each of us it’s different.

What’s the total staff of the Museum? What proportion fits into other unions like guards, storage men, painters, etc.? What proportion is left?

The total staff is about 400. We represent 70% of the staff not represented by other unions, which represent guards, electricians, and restaurant personnel. There are five other unions in the Museum. We are the largest. We are 170.

How many on the staff of the Museum are not represented by unions?

40, approximately, not unionized who comprise management. 190 people, approximately, are in unions other than ours.

As an outsider, my view is that the Museum is grossly overstaffed.

Do you still think so? Because I think two years ago you said that and then the staff dropped by 60 people. I think the layoffs were really a critical turning point to the Museum. I feel that most departments—beside the fact that there is a certain amount of inefficiency in a number of places—are really getting along on an absolutely minimal staff. And don’t forget the International Program relies on the curatorial departments, a program which other museums don’t have. Tons of these exhibitions are circulating in every corner of the world at this point. There are all sorts of hidden programs in the Museum.

What did you mean when you said it was critical—the layoffs?

I think a few years ago there was overstaffing, and now I think it’s the other extreme, where most departments are getting along with a minimal staff. Also, some departments have grown, like the Finance Department which is now grossly overstaffed. There are more employees in the Finance Department than in Painting and Sculpture. But management does not want to face the fact that we’re unionized.

Nor the Trustees?

Including the Trustees. I think it’s as basic as that, and the responsibility for this situation falls on Richard Oldenburg—especially for the specific issues we are negotiating now. It’s no excuse to claim he’s downtrodden by William Paley. They don’t want to face the fact that we’re unionized, and they oppose the broad fact of unionization, rather than the issues in these specific negotiations. This is the first union to be formed by the professional staff of a museum. A couple of other museums have since formed unions, but they’re not really as all-encompassing as ours. PASTA (THE PROFESSIONAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE STAFF ASSOCIATION OF MOMA) is looked to as a leader. There are directors of other museums that are undoubtedly aware of this, and I think it is a subject that is of substantial concern to them.

Specifically, on what basis do you think Oldenburg has failed to cope with the problem presented by PASTA?

During our first dealings with Oldenburg, when we opened negotiations last year, he was quite sympathetic and we came up with what we considered a fair settlement. We thought it was reasonable. The atmosphere has been entirely different in this negotiation. He has not attended one bargaining session, and our lawyer has never seen him. The explanation he’s given is that the heavy doesn’t come in until the last moment. It seems to us that a strike is the last moment.

What has he to gain by this tactic?

I think Oldenburg was prepared for a confrontation and hoped to prove that the union was weak and would not be able to survive it. It’s obvious from Oldenburg’s published statements that this is going to be a long, hard strike. Money alone is a problem. The fact that one-third of the people on strike make less than $7,000 a year means that they are living from hand-to-mouth, and now they won’t get salaries until the strike is settled. How are those people to live during this period of time? Strike benefits are minimal—$15 per week. The Museum has told us they save $27,000 a week when we go out on strike.

What other options do you think Oldenburg is trying to keep open for himself?

He’s adamant about not allowing us representation on the Board of Trustees. I think that’s an important issue, one that he downplays in his public statements. But it’s terribly important to him and to us.

If you had representation on the Board of Trustees, what would you do, because part of the thing that has been missing from your press releases is any indication of what you would do if you were there.

For example, the Museum is concerned about serving the members of the Museum. A good deal of the Museum’s income is based on membership, and as the benefits of membership have declined, so have the members. So there’s a need to reevaluate the members’ program. One of the Museum’s best series is the Film Department’s Cineprobe, in which the audience has a chance to talk to the filmmaker, and the curatorial staff. The Trustees could easily institute an open forum on a monthly basis for members, and discuss not only current exhibitions but other topics as well. Whatever is happening in the art world at the time could be a subject for the forum.

Couldn’t you achieve this without getting on the Board?

Absolutely not. We’re asking for one elected staff member on the Board of Trustees, and one on each of seven noncuratorial trustee committees: executive, finance, personnel, education, membership, house, and development. We already have access to the curatorial committees which cover all varieties of acquisitions. We’ve won the right to be heard before the Board, but at the discretion of the director. That’s paternalistic bullshit. Under the present system, once we’ve presented our views to the Board we have no effective means of evaluating the criteria by which the Board makes their decisions, or indeed, if they took our views into consideration. The problem is this: the real power, that is the top decision-making process, lies in the hands of the Executive Committee, which acts as a cabinet, and the full Board rubber stamps their decisions. Even the Director is in the same position—unless he has convinced the Executive Committee he has little chance of achieving his aim with the full Board. But the insidious part is that the guidelines used by the Board are more appropriate to big business than to an educational institution. We are the people who have nothing to lose and who can be the most outspoken about the real educational issues. It’s basically the same issue as academic freedom. Do we have the right to be heard in an outspoken manner on issues of grave concern to artists, the public, and to the profession without jeopardizing our jobs? The answer is no, not unless a machinery is created whereby we have a debating and voting role within the decision-making process. In order to be able to function effectively, with the fullest sense of responsibility, we have to have the right to participate not as suppliants, but as informed participants. We cannot do so unless we have immediate access to the full range of problems normally dealt with by the Board and the committees. For instance, one of the things that came up during the negotiations is the fact that the Museum in the course of the last three years has taken 5% of its endowment, $850,000, to fund a pension plan, of which $700,000 is attributable to pensions for the 40 management titles, and only $1 50,000 to the 170 titles in our unit. Most profit-making enterprises would not past fund a pension over a three-year period. They would amortize the pension over a longer period of time. The Museum is an institution with a deficit of 1.6 million dollars, and claims it is saving money with this plan. During the same three-year period they drastically reduced the Museum’s programs, laid off 36 people, and refused to grant merit increases or improve basic wages. If someone from the bargaining unit had been present when this pension arrangement was made, perhaps a serious alternative would have been raised. We also managed to convince the Trustees not to increase the admission fee for senior citizens. We had to go out on the street to do it.

That’s very good. And I agree with everything that you’ve said, but still, what real policy differences would you make aside from making it a nicer place to be?

To encourage the Trustees to make other programs possible.

That they would accept your analysis of the events rather than the analysis of the heads of departments to which they have access at the moment?

I think so. The curatorial staff, for example, understands the works of art. The director is not a specialist. I happen to like him—although my feeling has begun to diminish lately. He’s not an art historian, he’s not an art specialist, he’s a book man. I care about our publications program, but I think it’s very important that a broader spectrum of the staff speak to the Trustees to try to see what the Museum needs to grow, to become more vital.

Wouldn’t your representative going in have a notion of what is needed to grow? You haven’t given me a big enough answer yet.

Why did students want to open up boards of universities? Basically, it’s a give and take, a new kind of information floated back to a more plebeian level. And it’s the reverse.

Is that all it is? Like students?

You’re asking people who now only see things from a worm’s-eye point of view, who don’t have access to most of those meetings, who find out only after the fact what policies have been approved, to give you a blueprint for reform. Understanding the program of the Museum is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You puzzle out one small piece at a time. For example, one of the department heads, say Bill Rubin, may hire an additional administrative assistant. Why? You find out six months later that it has been agreed that he will assume the responsibilities of Director of Painting and Sculpture—a completely new title. A year later you learn that in the bargain he will be bringing in a new director of exhibitions, who will replace an existing member of the staff. It’s completely Byzantine. It’s inverse reasoning, and it’s hard for us to tell you what policy we want changed until we know what policies exist. I think that the Board needs opening up to opinions from the main body of the staff—not the filtered opinions they get now. We simply want to be there and listen. We want to contribute. If you really want to trace the history of the demand for membership on the Board, it was one of our initial concerns, but we only partially pursued it at the first negotiations.

Do you think it might be because curatorial interests were scattered among other interests? Is that why it didn’t get followed up?

No, it was a less important issue than getting the union recognized and salaries and employment relationships established. But really, the reason the union exists is because the Museum was very badly mismanaged. We don’t want to go back now over all that old background. The movement for the union came when, for instance, they decided as an economy measure to close the library. Of all the stupid ideas I’ve ever heard of—the proposal saved a few cents a week.

Who decided to close the library—the Trustees or the management?

How do we know? I understand that the idea came from the Finance Department. A man from Chase Manhattan Bank was head of the Finance Department. It was his idea that a great deal of money could be saved by closing the library. The Museum was fully prepared to proceed. You’ve asked us what our contribution might be. Well, at the moment there isn’t an issue on the table. But then one of us might have sat down and said: “What are the finances involved? This seems like a damned fool idea.”

It seems to us that what you are saying, is that the main idea for unionization is greater clarity in the management and the Trustees in assessing the role of the staff and the internal relationship of both.

We were finally forced to unionize for greater professional participation—that’s why we did it. The bread-and-butter issues only came up after the Association was already formed. No one spoke about their salary. It was considered gauche to discuss your salary.

I can see how you desire representation on the Board of Trustees, and I think you ought to have it. I can see how your information is going to be fuller and your power to act quickly as issues come up is going to be improved. I’d still like to know what your input to the Board will be. I can see how it will strengthen the union. How will you strengthen the Board?

The Board of Trustees must change as museums change and should no longer be a handful of businessmen who subsidize the Museum; museums are moving into government funding, federal and state funding, etc. Consequently the Board must seek people who can not only finance the Museum but who can provide expertise in operating the Museum’s programs. It’s the flexibility of the institution and the manner in which the structure can meet new challenges.

To take an example, when they held the Board meeting and decided to raise admissions across the board, if one of us had been there we might have said: “Senior citizens are not going to make a penny’s worth of difference and it’s inhumane. Maybe they wouldn’t have gone ahead, and we wouldn’t have had to hold a public demonstration. It’s ridiculous to force us to a job action, with a couple of hundred people marching on the pavement, TV news broadcasts, etc. Maybe that would not have happened.”

But given the changing role of museums and the crisis they are in with their relations to the public at the moment, I’m very interested to know what you would do in addition to these small corrections?

The people who are asking for representation are the people who not only deal with the public, but deal with the works of art on a daily basis, and they are much more familiar with the ongoing procedure of the Museum than the Board of Trustees. It’s not as if we’re asking for a veto or that we want limitless power. We want only enough input to articulate ideas to which the Board could become more sensitive. That changing role is coming about as a result of public demand. There is another interesting point. As long as I’ve worked at the Museum, it’s been a place where a sense of direction came via the director. It was true of René d’Harnoncourt, of course, and then it was also true, however critical one may have been of the actual direction, of Bates Lowry and John Hightower. We have no sense whatever of what Oldenburg wants the Museum to do or where he wants it to go. Hightower had a tremendous need to get different people into the Museum, whether you agreed with him or not. It was a clear drive in the Museum, and one could go along with it. But we don’t have any direction from Oldenburg. I don’t know what he wants from the place, where he wants it to go, what its direction is.

Why do you think he was appointed?

First of all, the profession itself is almost bereft of people. There are tons of museum directorships going begging. Eventually they will get around to looking at women. Don’t you think that essentially Oldenburg was chosen because he’s a good businessman? He did a good job with the Publications Department. He’s tall and blond, he’s good-looking, and his father is a diplomat. He’s been credited with turning the Publications Department around. We had an enormous inventory and he managed to write it off. The Trustees loved him for that.

You don’t take any pleasure from the fact that he came from within the Museum?


Wasn’t this better than bringing in a Bates Lowry from the outside?

Yes, there is an advantage in having someone who is familiar not only with the staff, but also with the inner structure of the Museum. Our first contract made provision for a search procedure should the directorship fall vacant. When Hightower left, Oldenburg was made Acting Director and cooperated in setting up the Search Committee. The staff elected two representatives. We paved the way for him, in a sense, by demanding representation.

You were able to approve the appointment of Richard Oldenburg?

We had no veto power.

It seems to me so far from listening to you, that you seem to be a group of people in search of a role without any emphatic notion of the nature of your role.

You know, it would be a lot easier to have a more clear idea of our direction if the Museum had not put us in the position for the last three years of constantly defending every step. Every hurdle that could impede our way was erected, so that much time was taken up with handling mundane issues. It’s a continual battle of just trying to make the Association exist. They have fought it every inch of the way with every means at their disposal.

When the history of the union is recorded it will show you were always forced so on the defensive that the role of the union itself was limited to petty matters with which you had to cope on a daily basis?

Frequently. It’s something we don’t want to have happen and that in itself is a constant battle. We do not want the Association to become another blue-collar labor organization which is continually struggling over wages and fringe benefits. We are a group of dedicated professionals who are concerned about the institution—and we are constantly being put on the defensive.

Would it be true to say that because of the nature of the Staff Association, because it has none of the most experienced senior members on it—they’re not allowed to join it—that the vast majority of the Staff Association do not have access to management positions?

That’s true. It’s hard to blame that on the Association. It’s in part a women’s issue. 75% of our staff is composed of women, and management positions are held 75% by men. There are so many questions that exist at that Museum. You can’t tell whether you’re not being trained because you’re a woman or because you’re active in the Staff Association or—

What percentage of the Staff Association is women?


Of concern to the Staff Association, it seems, is the denial of opportunities to participate in rational management. Does this also have to do with the serious problem that has arisen over Oldenburg’s claim that senior curators, who are not directors of departments, should not be allowed to join the union? What is this problem? Can you clarify it?

At present they are eligible to be members of the Association, but cannot be represented by it for the purposes of collective bargaining, and are not covered by the union’s contract with the Museum. At the time of our certification election a number of senior positions were claimed by both the union and management. For instance, our Association now represents the entire curatorial rank up to and including associate curator. The title of curator is challenged by management as supervisory. The distinction between a curator and an associate curator is one of seniority and professional recognition rather than function. If they are supervisory they are equally supervisory, whereas a chief curator or department head (a title not claimed by the Association) regulates staffing, controls a budget, and directs the administrative activities of a department. As a matter of principle, the Association has not requested a closed shop. Membership is voluntary. Many senior professionals have written to the director asking to be represented by the union.

What are these titles you keep referring to?

They include full curators and associate registrars, conservators, and librarians. Many of these people are out on strike. Some have been on the Association’s program committee and negotiating team. Most have worked for donkey’s years at the Museum, know it inside out, participated in the founding of the Association,and are among its staunchest supporters. After years of service and now in senior positions, they have the clearest view of the need for the union. These people have been and will continue to be Association members irrespective of their inclusion in the bargaining unit. By removing them from full membership, management hopes to diminish the union’s authority and effectiveness. What it boils down to is job security. They don’t want these people covered by a union contract which requires them to show cause if they want to terminate their employment. They want as much discretion as possible for reorganization and to switch around positions. They want these people out of the unit so that they can fire them without having to prove they are incompetent in their jobs. This is the attitude of big business toward middle management, not of a chartered educational institution toward professional men and women. The Museum can’t openly state their real position. So they’ve adopted this odd argument that they can’t operate the Museum with a handful of department heads. But it’s exactly the handful of department heads that runs the Museum, and these disputed titles have no decision-making power.

I was wondering if it would be useful to say that you’re in the midst of a role-searching activity? It seems to me that when the Museum began it was in the hands of a few Trustees who were immensely wealthy and who put out the money—I’m talking about the Rockefellers who traditionally provided vast amounts of their family fortune to keep the Museum going. They also provided the paintings, and people like Mrs. Guggenheim, and others who’ve given millions of dollars in one way or another. However, there’s been a continuous quarrel between their own appointees and the nature of trustee function. It’s gone on since its foundation. Nowadays, there is more and more an awareness that the professionals are not so much hired functionaries, but intelligent and well-trained people of their particular discipline. In democratic society certain areas of decision making should devolve on their shoulders and less on the arbitrary tastes of the rich. There’s that excellent article by Joshua Taylor in the Sunday Times —the article was on the notion that museums should be tied to universities. Taylor notes that we simply have to stop museums being merely extensions of a private mania for collecting, for a kind of social one-upmanship, and move them into broader, more totally organized educational institutions. For example, it’s not been a particularly modern museum if we look at it from today’s viewpoint. I mean it didn’t do the Cubism or Dada show until 1937. It started off with Cézanne and Seurat and the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists some 40 years after the fact and now, having performed one educational function, it seems that times have caught up. They were the only institution in the world; now there are dozens in America and Europe doing the same kind of thing. Some revision of its function now seems necessary.

Well, an interesting aspect of that is that the Trustees who founded the Museum in many cases are still there, and the Board of Trustees grows older and older.

What is the average age of the Board of Trustees?

About sixty. And they’re very concerned with the fact they can’t find younger people with the same amount of money and influence as those presently on the Board, who are willing and able to take up the cause.

Don’t the Trustees basically provide the main income today? That is, they can provide it and they continue to provide it?

Of course a major part still does come from the Trustees.

So surely the union’s interest would be for the Museum no longer to exist as a private institution, but for it to become a public institution in the sense that the city and the state and federal governments should support it in some way.

In our first contract we won a clause which stipulated that the Trustees and Director seek additional aid from the highest levels of government, not only for special programs, but also for operating expenses. They were to report to us more than two years ago what assistance they had requested. We’ve never received that report.

When you didn’t get it on schedule, what did you do?

We’ve threatened filing grievances, but we did not. The clause called only for a listing of efforts, a requirement that could easily be met. It was not sufficiently strong to assure a serious effort to secure government support. And it included no provision for how added funds would be allocated.

But the Director didn’t even provide the list?

No. He ignored the contract. The provision seems to have had some effect, however, because the arguments they advanced to the New York State Council on the Arts, for example, were directed to obtaining operating expenses. Like most museums they’re now saying “We need money to run our exhibition program and pay staff salaries.” The National Endowment, on the other hand, still insists that one apply for a grant to fund a particular book or show. It’s very hard to have any flexibility in a program when Federal money is so tied to a particular project.

Haven’t you received $220,000 this year?

Yes, we got $216,000 from the New York State Council on the Arts. I think about half of it was designated for operating expenses, salaries of people in specific departments. The other half was to be applied to the exhibition program.

Then Oldenburg has been successful—

He’s a successful director in many respects.

Then he has gained funds from public sources?

I think that pressure from the Staff Association encouraged him to find other sources. The thing that’s disturbing is that you encourage him to do something, but there’s no feedback. The next year he’s still trying to dissolve the union, in spite of the improvements it makes. So you become tired and bored and less able to function well. For example, on his first day as Acting Director we went to Oldenburg with two requests: one, that the Trustees’ decision to demolish the Education Department was a grave mistake, that it should be reinstated, and be substantially supported by the Museum; two, we wanted representation on the Search Committee for a new Director. He came through with the representation. In regards to the Education Department, he asked us first to speak to Mrs. Larkin, a Trustee, who was interested in education, and willing to fund her interest, but could find no one on the Museum staff to support her. She met with a committee of the Staff Association, including several senior curatorial titles who were interested, and she was encouraged and secured an enormous grant from the Noble Foundation—one million dollars to be spent over five years. Prior to the Noble grant, Oldenburg agreed that he would set up a joint committee of Trustees and staff to decide what the Education Department was to be, what kind of programs it would institute, how it would use whatever money it gained. The committee was set up and staff members appointed. Once Mrs. Larkin provided the grant, Oldenburg never called the committee to meet. He hired someone himself, a man.

It seems to me that the structure of the Modern generally has been that of a Board of Trustees with autonomous heads of departments appointed by them, so that the head of any department has had the freedom to recruit whomsoever he desires. Many of these people, especially early on, lacked orthodox academic credentials. Some were brilliant amateurs. The Museum has been run on this informal structure since its inception. It’s arrived at such a size now that the union appears to want a total reform of the structure itself. This is obviously a tremendous undertaking. Do you want a rationalization of the structure?

We want a rationalization of the structure. One of the reasons the union formed was that many in the junior staff had little respect for those in positions above them. Decisions came from the top just as you described it. But that was when we began. Now the issue is something else—should there be a staff union or shouldn’t there? Of course there should. It’s old-fashioned for the Museum to try to carry on as a private gentlemen’s club, and of course the union is healthy rather than unhealthy. It wants to add to the Museum and not damage the Museum. The sooner they face up to it and deal with it as a healthy force rather than try to stamp it out like a cancer, the sooner a productive working atmosphere will be established.

Another question. Given the fact that the charter of The Museum of Modern Art is one granted by the Regents of the State of New York as an educational institution, has there been any attempt by the union to reform the structure of the Museum so that the professionals will be treated in the same manner as professionals in universities? That is, they will be tied to academic tenure and the same notions and functions that obtain in higher education.


Not protective, but rationalized. As life professionals dedicated within a profession, your search is not for money or wealth but for prestige within your function, within your chosen area of competence. Has there been any attempt by the union to rationally put forth to the Trustees and the senior staff any sort of program of reform which other museums, incidentally, have done, of relating staff within their professional competence to universities?

Many, many, many times. We have drawn that analogy more times than I care to enumerate. Not only have we drawn it, I believe it was Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III who stated it was the aim of the Museum to make professional positions parallel to those in the university. We have taken a step toward that in some respects.

Curatorial salaries have recently been improved and, in some cases, are now in line with those of the faculty in universities. This was accomplished as a result of the union’s reopened negotiations last summer. The professional respect and recognition that exist among university faculty does not transfer to the Museum, however. Trustees and department heads continue to adopt a paternalistic attitude toward the staff. Our attempt to bring full curators into the bargaining unit demonstrates that. In a university if a professor accepts administrative responsibilities and becomes the chairman of a department, he is considered ineligible for collective bargaining, whereas full professors can bargain collectively. The Museum refuses to draw that analogy. One of the demands in our first contract had to do with the promotion procedure. Individuals would remain indefinitely in the same position, and we attempted to establish an automatic system of review in which professional performance would be evaluated after a given number of years in title, and recommendations for promotion would be forwarded to the Director. This was a clear analogy to the system in universities. A professor at Columbia University in the American History Graduate Program named Walter Metzger presented a brief history of the American Association of University Professors when he addressed their membership on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. The situation he described existing in universities at the turn of the century, and the problems that university faculties then articulated, such as subsidizing institutions by their own impoverishment, academic freedom, tenure, recruitment in the profession, definition of professional roles, etc., are almost parroted by the things that the Staff Association has said at The Museum of Modern Art in the last three years. Unfortunately, the American Association of Museums has been controlled by directors of museums. Perhaps that is why it has been ineffectual in dealing with these professional concerns.

Don’t you think that it might have been more relevant for the PASTA not to have got into the classical trade-union situation? Might it not have been more relevant if you had formed an association of museum professionals?

We would have liked that. Unfortunately, there was no one else to join us, and we were forced into a strike almost immediately after forming. We were compelled by the Museum to pursue legal procedures, and become a certified bargaining agent.

Because of that bunch of firings?

No, we asked the Museum to discuss with us a wide range of subjects. Some involved money. Others involved commitments. They replied that they had no legal obligation to talk to us, so everything broke down. They would not recognize us. They allowed us to talk ad nauseam, but refused to implement a single proposal.

And yet you say the Museum feels free to set aside clauses in the union contract and because of this you doubt the validity of the union contract. So how has your position improved?

We are required to take a watchdog position. Here we are, holding full-time professional jobs, assumedly concerned with what we are doing at the Museum, while at the same time we’re having to police every single action that the administration takes because we can be assured the Museum will break the contract if we aren’t alert. We’re a nascent association of people, which is trying to achieve limited goals at first. Most of us have given up ideas of reforming the world. We’re only trying to reform a tiny segment—the MOMA.

Which museums have followed your example?

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Art.

And how is it going there? Have they encountered similar resistances?


Is that true? I understand when some problems arose at the San Francisco Museum, the staff challenged the Director. The Director went to the Board of Trustees with a threat of an imminent strike over various issues, and the Board gave the Director full power to negotiate and deal with the matter to whatever degree he felt necessary and to institute such reforms as he felt necessary.

I think you should understand they have an AFL-CIO closed-shop union—which also represents the employees in the Veterans Building where the museum is located—including the elevator operators and maintenance staff. When 20 members of the museum staff strike, the whole Veterans Building closes up. They have considerably more power in that respect than we do. But they do not include a full range of professionals. Their negotiations were handled by a business agent from the AFL-CIO, and from what we know their goals are much more limited than ours. We have tried not to limit ourselves to bread-and-butter issues because we hope to set a precedent for the organization of museum professionals. We don’t want to adhere only to established guidelines because our concerns are broader than that. Unfortunately, management in all three museums has preferred to deal only with standard labor issues. In Minneapolis, for example, there was a whole movement among the members of the staff to institute policy reforms which was thwarted by the director and the Board of Trustees.

Let’s talk about the professionals for a moment. Have you as a body of professionals attempted to come to grips with the problem of defining the future role of the MOMA? In short, I think that a Trustee very early on in the life of the Museum said that the only way there could be a MOMA was for it to be the most daring institution in the world. Surely the MOMA arteries have hardened over the years; it no longer has the same daring outlook that it began with. Aren’t they at some loss as to exactly what their function is? Isn’t there a division within the Museum itself?

Speaking for all, that’s the difficulty.

Speak for yourselves. I can’t understand what you would do were you to get trustee representation.

I for one and I’m not even curatorial feel that there is a reactionary tendency in the Museum, that there’s a much greater interest in historical exhibitions. I think it’s valuable to assess the collection of the Museum, to perform the intensive study of the collection and to emphasize it, but I also think that the program needs to be much more daring. I think that we should have a far greater emphasis on the avant-garde—the people of the ’60s and ’70s.

That would mean that the Modern would be sharing its functions with all the other galleries and museums in New York and elsewhere that are showing new art.

You mean the galleries.

With rare exception, I think I’m correct in saying all the exhibitions of the ’60s and ’70s, basically speaking, have been pioneered by institutions other than the Modern.

I don’t really think that the program has anything to do with the Museum Union. Whatever strength the union seeks can only take place when the Museum leadership is settled. Only then can the Union respond. We’re not trying to take over the place, appoint a director, or foment a revolution. We all know we’ve got to find out what the role of the Museum is.

Yes, but if you gave thought to the role of the Museum, I think you would strengthen yourselves ideologically, enormously.

I think it’s important. I must have written what must amount to books for every single past director on the role of the Museum. How many have we had—five? They ask: what’s your theory? You’d sit down and sort out your thoughts and hand it in and then the guy is fired. The place has to settle down, the constant change that was going on made it impossible . . .

It seems to me you’d be in a much better spot if a definition of the Museum function existed.

But you can’t have that. You can’t define the function of the Museum because that’s the province of the director.

Not necessarily. It isn’t just an operational thing, of who’s got the big desk. We have to get these statements clear, because they’re very important. I don’t think there’s any difficulty in establishing what the role of the Museum has been, what it is seen as at the moment, and what are the possibilities for change. I don’t see that there’s any great difficulty, I mean in broad terms.

You would through experience. It has a director now and it has heads of departments who are important in establishing policy, but one has to understand the vibrations from those people and try to work within the framework, to try to alter whatever one thinks is wrong as part of an ongoing process.

According to what kind of criteria? And if you’re denying criteria, how would you know if it’s right or wrong?

From my experience I’ve just been subjected to so many people’s criteria at the Museum, I can only be horribly subjective about it.

That’s pragmatic.

Pragmatic, maybe, but subjective too.

Is the Museum in a state of crisis? We as outsiders feel it is beyond the Staff Association and such questions as salaries—what is the role of the Museum now? It seems to me—rightly or wrongly—that it’s in the hands of one or two people who seem to dominate its outlook and seem to have all the power. You are representing the Staff Association—we do want to hear from you systematically, pragmatically, and intuitively some answers to these really important questions. In what role do you conceive the Staff Association? Now, if you say that the Staff Association cannot play any role then to some extent it seems to me you are wasting your time. Because you’re protecting your position within a moribund institution. And I don’t think that’s really what you’re doing. So it seems to me that the question of the role of the Museum becomes absolutely crucial. I mean, for example, if we go through department by department, what role can the Architectural Department play today?

I feel unequal to dealing with the things you are talking about—I am not a senior staff member. I went to college in the ’60s, was concerned with social issues during the time that I was studying art, and shared the increased political concern of many people in this country. It seems to me that the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights issues—all of these things that arose during my education—have frequently dwarfed my interest in painting and sculpture. They have become of enormous and immediate concern.

That’s exactly what I’ve been saying. That if we take the Department of Architecture and Design, given the way the situation is in this country, can it function any longer as a guardian of pure esthetics? Can it function any more around objects of that class? Surely the relevance—if we want to use that word in the ’70s—of that department is one entirely different from the traditional view of what architecture was formerly about. What’s happening in that department? Why can’t you examine each department’s function, generally, not as experts.

When I came to New York I felt that The Museum of Modern Art was an ideal. To one from the Midwest, The Museum of Modern Art appears to be an icon of culture, a symbol for finding new ways of dealing with life and culture.

How has this symbol failed you now?

There is little dialogue within the Museum concerning its exhibitions and programs which filters through to the junior staff. If you want input into the Museum and its future there is no way of doing it. You run up against a brick wall.

Yes, but on what terms? I don’t mean on your ability to get promoted—

I have been disappointed with many exhibitions which have been mounted, and felt that other significant problems have been ignored. More than many of the Museum’s departments, Architecture and Design should be able to address issues of crucial importance today. Other than their recent exhibition of low rise high density housing, they have not, in my opinion, done so. Even that exhibition should have been done much sooner.

So let’s go on a little further. Now we’re getting to the question of relevance. What is the function of the Museum?

I think it has to do with the intellectual leadership at the institution. The Museum is simply not a center for ideas.

This is not the fault of the institution but of the department heads surely?

In some cases that is true, but it also has to do with the structure of the Museum. Bill Rubin is a respected scholar. He is invaluable to the Department of Painting and Sculpture. But because of his intellectual irresilience, the Department should also include someone of his stature but who maintains a different intellectual bias. At the present such a person could not exist in that Department. It appears to be a situation where one person’s control stifles everyone else.

That’s the situation in Painting and Sculpture. The situation in the Film Department is that there is nobody with much ability or conviction to make a point, so it just kind of drifts along?

The support staff in the Film Department is very strong, and has been allowed more freedom than many other departments. The department director is about to retire, and a search is now under way for his replacement. In compliance with our contract, members of the department are participating in the search, and have advanced several candidates. We are pessimistic about how seriously they will be considered, and fear that Mr. Van Dyke will maneuver his own protege into the post, thereby maintaining his influence over the department. The situation is unfair because the film director clearly has more access to those Trustees who will ultimately make the decision. The Trustees are so removed from the institution that they cannot be expected to make an independent assessment. Many high positions are filled in just this way.

Okay for the Film Department. Rubin certainly has a stranglehold on Painting and Sculpture, right?

As I see it, Bill Rubin is one of the few department heads that can be respected.

He is able. He is productive. Only a man with a superabundance of power is able to function in the Modern itself because of the nature of the institution. Because of its lack of a cogent organization or schema. Certain department heads are not men of power but they are simply there.

They are men of power in another sense. They have access to their own coterie of Trustees, and that’s their power. You needn’t be a powerful man intellectually if you are an influential man with Trustees. The system is such that one person gains access to members of the Board, and thus to power. He then acts as a power bottleneck with his subordinates and colleagues in other departments.

Surely the Modern has a dual function. It seems to have a primary function as a historical institution providing the basic lines of research and accumulation of objects which cover a certain history of cultural activity on the one hand. And on the other, it has a pledged undertaking to present all that’s best and new in the arts, broadly speaking.

Its charter was not as a collecting institution. It was as an educational institution.

But you can’t educate without objects.

I think that’s open to debate at this point.

There has to be a debate. It can’t be just written off. And their function is to educate on the widest base that’s possible. Is that written down somewhere?

The charter says that it is to—I don’t have the exact language—to educate the public as to the arts of our times. But I agree with you. I think that part of its function has got to be to assess its collection. It’s an important collection and its role is crucial. I for one feel that it has not been innovative enough in investigating current movements in art and presenting them in a thoughtful way. I think that’s what I want. New York City has changed so much—there are so many exhibitions going on all over, we have to sort our role out in relation to the other museums.

Wait a minute. McShine’s “Information” show coincided with another one at the New York Cultural Center and that kind of overlap is continual now. I do see that the Modern has immense problems in defining its role.

But it always has had.

Not necessarily. It’s had problems but the point I want to get at is this: 30 years ago the number of museums involved in modern art in this country was minuscule. The Modern has traveled thousands of exhibitions across the country and abroad. Now that you have so many museums all over the country interested in modern art and programs of their own, it’s very hard for the Modern to compete or to define its area of competence. And, of course, there are so many museums in New York City since the Modern was founded—the Guggenheim Museum, the New York Cultural Center, and the Whitney Museum have all emerged.

That’s not counting places like Finch which have done good programs of contemporary art.

And all of the museums surrounding the whole area.

You basically describe the Museum as a dying institution, having accomplished its goals?

No, I’m not saying that. I don’t say it’s a dying institution. I think that’s wrong and needs to be more narrowly and tautly defined. Do you believe that it is correct for the Museum to enter into entrepreneurial activities in order to raise funds? For example, do you agree that it is correct for the Museum to have a bookstore that sells to the general public; have a publishing house that publishes popular books, in relationship to its function as an educational institution? Do you think that it is right for it as a non-profit-making institution to perform in this particular manner?

No, and you would be surprised at how little they have thought this through. I remember being at a famous meeting at the Museum where we were told that the bookstore was going to expand into the gallery where the Miró exhibition is now installed—the East-Wing Gallery—and everybody sat speechless. I asked why, and was viewed with astonishment: the answer, obviously, is that the bookstore makes a profit! So I replied, “Well, why don’t you install something like a dry-cleaning store and we’ll make much more of a profit.” It then began to dawn on the Director that if increasing the size of the bookstore could only be done at the expense of gallery space, it was really quite pointless in relation to the Museum’s purposes. You ask us why the union exists; this is the level of thinking that we have had to contend with. Several years ago, the Director of Publications—it was then Dick Oldenburg—met with his Trustee Committee which had just been reactivated. He was told that the Museum needed a best-seller every year. It was said only partially in jest. The Family of Man, for example, sold three and a half million copies and continues to produce a gigantic income, but there are plenty of books that are not The Family of Man but are still valid publications. One of the difficult attitudes that we in Publications meet is this notion that everything we publish has to be lucrative, or that it has to be tied to a specific exhibition. We are not allowed enough flexibility to publish something that may indeed deal with the collection.

The publication program could be regarded as an educational extension, a distribution of information, more widely of exhibitions and programs.

Primarily, but I think the major problem is that it is regarded as a profit-making department. It is profit-making and it is educative—it has a double function. But should any department of the Museum be meant to be profit-making? I don’t think so. It’s destructive. Do you see a current need for the Modern?

If it’s a historical, educational institution. On the other hand, is it going to continue its role as a museum of modern art? One free and independent of all kinds of commercial pressure.

Do you see a need for that?

Frankly, yes, in some respects, and certainly for the exhibitions program. How are these things to be regulated? Doesn’t it seem to you that some sort of scheme—since the ability of the professionals is dispersed and resources are found all around the country—is necessary whereby the various museums get together and define their relationship to the Modern and how the kitty is divided?

I think it would be more productive if they cooperated with each other. Now they simply compete, and try to ace each other out. It’s a lot of wasted energy. I always try to keep in touch with my colleagues in other museums. I really made specific attempts to try to see them and talk with them to stop that from happening.

Don’t you think that the fact that the Modern refuses to take outside shows within the United States in itself is contributing to the competitive element, thereby furthering a waste of resources?

You mean use other people’s shows? I don’t particularly. There are other museums in New York that could do that. The Museum has the staff to originate its own shows and I think it should. But other places don’t have those resources.

What happened to the Agnes Martin show? Why couldn’t it come to New York, with all the exhibition facilities we have?

Do you mean take it for the Modern? What I’m saying is I think the Modern has a big enough staff to originate shows, and I think there are plenty of other places in New York City that can take them.

The Agnes Martin show was well structured. It was done by professionals—it was a good show. Was there any reason why before it went elsewhere it shouldn’t have come into New York?

I couldn’t work out why. It’s a matter of prestige with many museums—they want to take shows which, if they haven’t originated them, at least they’ve been in on from the inception. It also has to do with the number of staff members. In a museum with a very small staff, you can’t fill your program without accepting other people’s shows. The Museum has a large staff and it doesn’t have to accept others. But I think there are other institutions in New York that can and should accept them.

But they’re not doing so?

Right. But they should. And because they don’t, doesn’t necessarily mean that the Modern should step in there. I don’t think the Museum’s role is in unoriginated shows.

Why not bear down on this a little. The Modern was the pioneer institution in the country in originating shows. For many years it was the only museum capable of originating shows. It had the staff, the knowledge, the insight, the know-how, as well as access to the art. Given that this is now changed, that we have a well-trained body of people around the country surely there could be a more rational use of museum space and resources. After all, the Modern does sometimes have outside curators organizing its shows. Surely it could now be in a better position not only to share shows with other people, but to get other people to initiate shows on a shared basis.

It has always shared shows to try to cut the cost, as far as I know. Almost every major show we’ve done traveled. I don’t especially like co-directing exhibitions. I don’t see how anybody gains by that.

I’m saying is there any reason why the Modern shouldn’t take a show from outside, take shows from Europe? Why shouldn’t it take shows from outside New York, why this elitism at the present moment?

It isn’t something essential to the Modern’s role at all, as there are other museums in New York City that can do it. It has a permanent staff working constantly. It seems to me there would be a tremendous fluctuation in staff time if you start changing that. And I don’t see what’s gained. What are you implying?

We are talking about a community of museum people, and until the Modern reforms itself in such a way that it regards the community as part of itself then you people are always going to be in the same position that you are in now. The Modern’s sense of elitism, of one-upmanship, over exhibitions hinders this reform. In refusing to relinquish the right exclusively to originate contemporary shows, aren’t you also publicly announcing that you are—at least on the curatorial level—overstaffed and animated by elitist notions of prestige and glamour?

Overstaffed, absolutely not. On the contrary, we have a full-time exhibition program, and the correct complement of staff to operate it. I have been addressing myself to your question on this pragmatic level. However, on a philosophical and moral level, I agree with your point. There should be no blanket rule that operates in terms of exclusivity. I also think you are confusing issues: elitist attitudes, and activities proper to the Museum. You cannot be suggesting that the Museum should attempt to fulfill every function. That leads us right back to wasteful competition. With so many institutions in this city concerned with exhibitions, we can only establish or improve the Museum’s role with reference and deferring to functions that might be more easily or appropriately accommodated by one of these other institutions. Remember that although in literal terms it might be a private institution, in actual terms it is not; its standing is national—international. If in any degree it assumes a parochial viewpoint, it is certainly ignoring its real, unique position. I work with the Latin American Program and personally find a contradiction in the fact that the Museum makes an enormous effort to reach audiences in Brazil but provides little for minority communities in New York City. But that’s a special function. The Education Department is much less developed than the International Program—that’s a problem.

Are they interested in Latin America because some Council members have business interests there?

Yes, that’s precisely the reason. And they don’t give a damn about Central Harlem, so the museum isn’t interested, right? Those are the kinks in the Museum’s program that don’t make sense to me.

Good. But why? Because you see the Museum being used as a social and political organization—

And it maintains at the same time all of these esthetic credentials, the kind of elitism you are talking about.

Yes, but those credentials have become less convincing recently—that is one of the reasons for the crisis at the moment and for the general crisis of all museums.

What you are talking about has possible ramifications for the union, not so much for our role but the union’s future if it is to extend beyond our Museum, across the country. A terribly anachronistic situation exists for museum workers everywhere, and museums themselves are anachronistic in their structure. They are little power centers, with no direction.

Basically, I think there is no question that the Modern still serves the artist and it serves the scholar in all kinds of ways, it still basically serves the notion of the collector—I think that’s true, isn’t it?

No, I think it serves, if we are talking at the same level, a middle-class public, and I despise that concept. The only day when there is a good atmosphere is on the day when you pay-what-you-will, which the staff made happen.

Aren’t you being a little sentimental?

No, I thought probably everyone was being very sentimental about reaching a new kind of public by instating a “free” day. That was the way it appeared during John Hightower’s era, but when they first began it turned out to be absolutely true. All these kids, not the usual pretentious suburbanites, would come in. The experiences on those days were incredible: kids walking into the Brancusi Gallery, and getting such a turn-on from it. That’s what the objects are there for: to be confronted directly. They are not words, they are not slides, they are not books, and they themselves should give you something.

What would you recommend having thought about this? Has The Museum of Modern Art taken on too much? Has it arrived at a point whereby it cannot continue in its present function because of a lack of space, staff, and the financial ability to perform satisfactorily? Has the time arrived for an autonomous national institution to take on the function of the Film Department, to take responsibility for the whole history of film rather than a private institution in New York? Should architects found an architectural museum of some kind as indeed they do in England, for example. The Royal Institute of Architects does quite a good program; they examine the problems of architecture within the profession, and consequently have enormous funding. Shouldn’t it be the same for the Design Department and Photography? Then the Modern should be left with its function as an institute of high art in the modern field. I mean, do you feel that this may in some way or another probably help to alleviate the current situation, of funding and of function?

That is just too abstract a solution, though it is one possibility. . .

But it is not so abstract! There is no other institution in the world that tries to do what the Modern does under one roof.

There is an advantage. I think that the growing interrelationship between the arts is a very . . . Oh, you have just said the worst thing—the last place where the growing interrelationship in the arts can have any foot in the door whatsoever is The Museum of Modern Art. If you were running a museum in Timbuctoo you would have a better chance of doing that.

What is the obstacle in New York?

The departments are operated as fiefdoms by the department heads. The interrelationship is ignored despite the fact that these disciplines were established under one roof because Barr saw relationships between the arts, and that they could enhance each other. In actual fact the place functions as a group of jealous individual museums, who obstruct each other. It’s terribly funny that you should make that point, because of the arguments that one sits through on that score. Should the department of Painting and Sculpture accept a film or a photograph? Of course, it turns out that the Film and Photography Departments wouldn’t accept the works by painters and sculptors anyway, because they consider their esthetic approach different. Consequently we never accomplish anything, whereas you’ll find museums in Europe are busy collecting good works regardless of their medium. I remember two years ago this came up, many conversations about reorganization of the Museum, to try to break down the departmental structure, this very kind of thing. We were framing, and I quote, a “demand letter” two years ago. One of the things talked about was this need to make it a much more flexible institution. That’s one thing that we have failed in.

Have you tried to discuss this? Has the Union?

We have discussed this among ourselves, different relationships between departments.

But if you got in on the level of policy, this might be something you could do.

As colleagues we now have a very different relationship with each other. One thing that the Union has done which is marvelous is to bring all of us into contact with one another. Before, I wouldn’t have had any idea who these people were. The Union crosses all boundaries; it is a very, very democratic organization which is terribly healthy for the Museum. We are so busy defending ourselves, and so busy constantly trying to prove that we are not enemies of the Museum, and that we intend to be taken seriously. I feel we’re really backed into a corner—I feel increasingly discouraged by trying to keep going on this level.

Has the Union considered appointing a full-time professional with an excellent background in museum work as a kind of coordinator among the museum membership to help to organize views, views as to the role the union could play in professional matters of reform and things like that?

You have three previous chairmen of the union sitting here, any one of whom would have joyfully relinquished that responsibility to either a well-qualified professional whom we couldn’t afford or an equally unaffordable staff person to do the shit-work. There is no one even to run the copying machine—it is just not like that. It would be marvelous if the union were established and able to move forward on that level; those are the issues we would prefer to deal with, but for the moment we are simply trying to keep ourselves alive.

How do you envisage the end of the strike? How do you envisage the strike will go?

You read Richard Oldenburg’s statement in the Times that people are going to start trickling in. That is a very real possibility. The museum is taking a 1940s attitude toward a labor union; they have stopped short of sending people with clubs to the picket line, but that is about the only tactic they have not employed. Their strategy has not been appropriate to dealing with intelligent, rational people—they have maneuvered, politicked, played games, drafted derisive, stupid memos that are insulting to those that read them. They have used rumors, and threatened people’s jobs. How do you deal with that?