An open letter penned by ‘concerned SFMOMA staff’ has urged director Neal Benezra and members of the museum’s Executive Cabinet to give up their salaries, claiming that “now is the time for museums to model a radical future for art and labour”.

With an email to staff reportedly having revealed that all planned furloughs have been cancelled until at least the end of June 30, the museum’s bosses have been called on to end the uncertainty for the wider ‘SFMOMA Family’ – a term workers say they have heard “time and time again from those in leadership”.

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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
An online petition seeking 1,500 signatures accompanies the open letter

The statement continues: “If we call ourselves a family, those at the top should do everything in their power to retain a full staff for the entirety of the crisis, including taking pay cuts.”

The idea that the lowest paid employees are bearing the brunt of the financial losses is a constant theme throughout the letter. “Janitorial, maintenance, frontline, and unsalaried workers are no less valuable than those whose work happens to take place at a computer screen,” it continues.

A four-point list of requests has been issued as part of the open letter.

Workers’ requests

  1. Let our Director draw a salary of zero for the duration of FY20, as many top executives are doing. Let executive team members draw a salary commensurate with those who are considered “non-essential.” Given that you have long found it appropriate to pay museum staff $20 an hour, we find nothing unreasonable in our request that you temporarily take such a salary during this crisis. We have included figures at the end of this document to demonstrate the massive impact this would have
  2. Let our trustee leadership — The Fisher Family, Diana Nelson, Chuck Schwab, Mimi Haas, and the dozens of other millionaires and billionaires who sit on our board — employ their proven fundraising ability to generate the sum needed for staff retention, as they did so successfully during the expansion campaign
  3. Let us as an institution take advantage of reconsidered deaccession guidelines. Hundreds of artworks in our collection have never once seen the outside of storage, and we are running out of room to store them; we should demonstrate that we do not value these unseen artworks above the lives of our employees
  4. Let us re-examine our endowment funds and use these to sustain furloughed staff

According to the letter, the salary drawn by the director is $965,584. This is labelled an “unjustifiable obscenity” and said to be triple that of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the person spearheading the American response to Covid-19.

“We cannot say this plainly enough to you and the dozens of millionaires on the SFMOMA Board: this should embarrass you. It should embarrass you that we are paying one individual almost one million dollars, year after inexplicable year, to run an art museum,” the letter asserts.

According to the letter’s authors, if the museum’s top ten earners accepted an hourly wage of $19.80 in May, June and July the organisation would save an estimated $825,000. If 60 of the 72 board members gifted the museum $50,000 toward staff salaries, they add, an estimated $3 million funds would be available to pay staff.

The approximate cost of paying all furloughed staff in full for May, June and July is said to be around $3.5 million.

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