The Precarious Lives of Freelance Museum Educators

  • 2015-12-11
  • Hyperallergic

The freelance museum educators working in New York City are a particular breed of professional: highly trained (often with specialized skills for teaching populations with cognitive issues or physical disabilities), mostly possessing advanced degrees, frequently in love with their jobs. For museums, having these vitally committed, knowledgeable personnel to provide a human face for the institution is essential to one of their main objectives: helping the children and adults they teach to develop a long-lasting relationship with the museum. These freelancers are also mostly women who have backgrounds in art history, education, writing, or commercial art trading, or are themselves practicing artists.

The picture that emerges of their employment is somewhat paradoxical. They make their living by stitching together several assignments at major museums, providing a critical service for them with no realistic long-term prospects and few employment benefits. Yet the flexibility of this type of employment is particularly attractive to working artists who need to prioritize their own practices in addition to other paying work. The educators I spoke with tend to work about nine months out of the year, since school groups are out for the summer. Some are quite happy with this arrangement because it allows them time to pursue other interests or their art practice. Still, perhaps the most glaring incongruity to educators’ employment is that while they are crucial to the museums’ long-term public engagement, these are freelancers, hourly waged workers-for-hire who lack the job security of a full-time, salaried position.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Morgan Library and Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art all utilize freelance educators. The reason for this seems to be the relationship between these institutions’ limited resources and the mammoth school population that exists within the environs. Were museums to hire enough full-time employees to manage the demand from area school groups, the work imbalance during the summer months would force the furlough of these staff members each year. Moreover, the learning groups vary their attendance from week to week and month to month.
Precisely because of this variance, most freelance educators learn to work with diverse populations, including children (K–12), adults, community groups (those without a school affiliation), and special-needs groups. As pointed out in Part 1, the educators usually arrive on the job already trained in the techniques of inquiry-based, child-centered learning, which treats the particular abilities and experience of each learner as the ground on which to build visual and verbal literacy.