The heat was suffocating on a recent summer afternoon atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof, where visitors jockeyed for selfies with the giant Big Bird perched on the artist Alex Da Corte’s sculptural mobile. An exasperated guard attempted to save the flightless fowl from the crowds, sweating in polyester pants as he shouted warnings.
Gallery attendants within the institution’s air-conditioned halls were also feeling the heat, saying that the lingering effects of layoffs and budget cuts have left them understaffed and overextended. Nowadays, security officers can be responsible for patrolling nearly a dozen galleries on their own—a job normally split between three people—leaving ample room for disasters to happen.
Patrons have physically attacked some employees. Recently, a guard discovered graffiti scrawled on marble sculptures of the museum’s Greek and Roman collection. There were drawings on the pedestals of the Medieval galleries. Another guard noticed that a vandal had painted white dots on the Rembrandts and Vermeers inside the Dutch Masters exhibition.
Now, employees say that the department responsible for keeping the Met and its visitors safe is struggling to function. Guards said they are expected to survey more galleries, work longer hours, and have received fewer breaks than usual. Vacation requests and medical leave are being denied because of staffing shortages, and some employees have complained that they haven’t had a free weekend since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Managers encourage using sick days because they won’t schedule us for vacation,” said one guard with more than a decade of experience at the museum. Like other employees interviewed for this article, they asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Another guard ended up quitting her job because she had two babies and the museum wouldn’t be flexible with her schedule.”
Museum guards say they’ve been stretched too thin. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Staff Cuts and Low Morale
During the pandemic, the Met reduced its staff by 20 percent and predicted a $150 million budget shortfall. Months of temporary closures severely reduced earned income at the museum. But the summer months have brought a surge in attendance.
In a recent email to the public, Daniel Weiss, the institution’s president and chief executive, announced that the museum has more than tripled its daily attendance figures since autumn, seeing more than 10,000 visitors come through its doors each day.
He described the museum as “strong and resilient,” detailing a $10 million grant from the federal government that it recently received. Simultaneously, he announced that the Met would again be open on Tuesdays and would resume extended evening hours on Friday and Saturdays—more work for an already exhausted security force.
“The public health and financial crises that all museums faced caused significant hardship at all levels of our institution,” a Met spokesperson told Artnet News, adding that the museum retained its full staff for many months during its temporary closure.
“We are elated that in recent days we have begun calling back laid off security guards. At present, half of the laid off security members have been recalled with more expected.” The museum did not comment on any specific claims elaborated in this article.
Daniel H. Weiss, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)
Eight employees interviewed by Artnet News for this article said that the museum’s statement overestimated the numbers of security members who had rejoined staff. According to each of them, the security department lost nearly a third of its ranks during the pandemic.
More than 100 guards have been laid off and others received early retirement packages; everyone with less than three years of service was let go, included employees who worked long night shifts during the pandemic closure and were assured by managers that they would keep their jobs.
In March, the museum’s chief security officer, Keith Prewitt, resigned for a similar job at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. His replacement, Regina Lombardo, has been appointed but has yet to take the job, leaving some guards feeling like they don’t have a champion at work.
“There is a hierarchy of who gets listened to at the Met,” said one employee. “The security guards are at the bottom of the pecking order.”
People wearing face masks visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art as it reopens to members after the pandemic closure, on August 27, 2020 in New York City, NY. (Photo by Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images)
The Union’s Role
One guard said that they doubted that colleagues in the Education or Curatorial departments took notice of their plight, saying that warm greetings from other staffers have been rare in their six years at the institution. Security officers are also increasingly frustrated with their union, which has tried to address issues with the Met.
Representatives declined to go into detail, but Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that the union officials were “currently in the middle of negotiations on these issues and absolutely are fighting for the benefit of our members.” The union did not respond to any of the specific claims laid out here.
According to four union members, the organization is considering whether to file an official grievance in preparation for legal action against the museum. The union has also been fighting for better wages.
Many guards are artists who joined the museum for health insurance and the opportunity for facetime with the collection’s famous Picassos and Pollocks. The pay is relatively low, starting with a $15 minimum wage, and rising slowly with each year of service.One current employee said they currently receive about $19 per hour after work at the Met since 2007. A former guard said that he left the museum after 18 years to become a doorman on the Upper West Side because it paid better.
“We are overworked and covering huge areas of the museum,” said one guard who has worked at the museum for nearly five years. “We want the museum’s leaders to notice that the guards are feeling like they are in a precarious position.”
Five guards said that they currently felt unsafe at work because of the reduced number of officers and rule changes. When the Met overhauled its visitor policies for the pandemic, it temporarily closed the coat check stations and introduced metal detectors. But the rules barring visitors from bringing certain items into the galleries have been loosely enforced, employees said, putting them on edge.
“If something goes wrong, there is nobody to help,” said a guard with more than a decade of experience at the museum. “Someone was having a panic attack in the stairwell. I needed to check if they were all right, but that meant leaving the entire Roman courtyard unattended with nearly a hundred visitors roaming around.”
Tourists wearing a protective mask take a selfie at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
Security Theater?
A lack of supervision leads to a rise in vandalism, according to museum experts.
“What they do is a form of security theater,” said Erin Thompson, an art-crime professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Museum guards act as a deterrent by putting on a show of security that makes everyone realize they are being watched.”
Thompson also expressed concern that a reduction in security officers has made the Met less welcoming to visitors. “The guards are the frontline of museum education,” she added. “People usually ask them questions about the art, but they might have to refuse to answer because they need to keep an eye out for vandals.”
Guards agreed with the assessment, saying that they were now responsible for answering the types of questions that laid-off visitors’-services staff would typically receive. “We don’t have time to do our primary job,” said one security officer, “which is to keep the art and people safe.”
And with the museum extending its hours, security guards worry that their lives are about to get even harder. Some employees are considering a walkout.
“According to our contracts and the insurance rules for the museum, they need guards on the floor,” said one guard, adding that they haven’t had a free weekend for 10 months. “If it wasn’t for us, they would close. And all we want is some respect.”
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