Considered one of the finest small museums in America, the New Museum is routinely acclaimed for its exhibitions of contemporary art under the stewardship of its longtime director, Lisa Phillips.
At the helm for 21 years, Ms. Phillips has earned the admiration of her peers by growing the institution from a scrappy operation into an influential cultural force with increased attendance, exhibition space, staff, budget and visibility.
But there is another side to the New Museum described by former and current staff members who complain of unhealthy work conditions, low pay, low morale and incidents in which they say they were asked by museum leaders to act unethically. . . .
A former finance director says Ms. Phillips told her to mislead the museum’s board about a cash shortfall. Art handlers say they were forced to work overnight at times to meet onerous deadlines. A former exhibitions director says that when the museum could not locate a work of art, its top officials suggested just making a copy, without telling the artist. . . .
In more than 30 interviews with former and current staff members from all ranks, an image emerged of a museum where some employees felt compromised or mistreated. Many of them chose to depart.
The museum has had four chief financial officers in ten years and four exhibition directors in 12 years. . . . “Management seems to feel that turnover is good, that they give people a start in the art world,” said Lily Bartle, an editor at the museum, who helped organize the union and was laid off in April after less than two years there. “But the reality is, people are trapped in low-paying positions and are forced to come and go quickly. You would be emailing somebody and realize they had left weeks ago. I think I got about 13 new phone lists in just my last six months of working there.”
This sort of story is so common that when I read about any institution or company built up from nothing by a charismatic founder I assume stuff like this is going on. Unless they have some radical new technological edge, new kids on the block can only succeed by outworking older institutions and cutting corners they would not. That means lying to outside investigators, cheating contractors or contributors, letting unsafe conditions slide, and so on. It means hiring under-qualified workers, paying them badly and letting them sink or swim, often putting intense pressure on them to work long hours. Some of these young folks will welcome the opportunity and either rise rapidly or quickly depart for something better, but many will feel used and resentful.
I even read a story like this about a Franciscan priest who founded an anti-poverty group that got a lot of praise for helping people but, again, turned out to be successful because it was abusing its employees and ignoring all sorts of laws and church policies.
As for charismatic founders, most of them are sociopaths so devoted to themselves and their vision that they can't be bothered to care about anything else: the rules, for example, or the well-being of their employees.
Of course such people have founded many of our great enterprises, not just companies but museums, dance troops, record labels, monasteries, and on and on.
Is it worth it, letting such people do their thing? Or should we be trying harder to clamp down on their misbehavior and insist they treat everyone well and pay the same wages (including overtime) as their competitors? What would we lose if we moved to a sort of Austrian system in which all employees have extensive rights and government oversight is thorough enough to make unpaid overtime nearly impossible?