Courtesy of Visit Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s Botched COVID-19 Precautions

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston was one of the first major American art museums to reopen its doors to the public after a month long closure due to the pandemic. As the art world lavished praise on the institution for its bold plans, employees tell a very different story.

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Last November, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, pulled off the nearly impossible: Despite a global pandemic, an economic recession, and even a hurricane scare, the grand opening of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building went off without a hitch. The building’s hollow glass exterior—set against a dramatic backdrop of skyscrapers—was a testament to the 10 years and $450 million it took to complete the museum campus’ expansion.

With Harris County counting thousands of COVID-19 cases every day, Gary Tinterow, the MFAH’s director, enjoyed the accolades that the museum was receiving from the Houston Chronicle, New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town & Country. “You name it, it’s been covered,” he said in a staff meeting in early December, which the Observer obtained a recording of. The Wall Street Journal called the new building a “triumphant and user-friendly addition.”

“That’s all I needed to see, the rest of it is just, blah blah,” he said in the meeting. To hear Tinterow tell it, the museum was fulfilling its public service, and its staff was now on the frontlines of the pandemic in an effort to keep a beloved institution open through tragedy. Many of its staff felt otherwise.

Both past and current museum staffers say that despite the museum’s precautions— mandating masks, checking temperatures, providing hand sanitizer, and requiring social distancing—they didn’t feel safe returning to work at the height of the pandemic, particularly as public health guidelines were changing constantly. Employees had little time decide whether they would return to a work environment where they’d be regularly interacting with the public. 

Early on, positive press rolled in for the MFAH, focusing on the MFAH’s safety precautions for guests, who would be allowed a welcome distraction during the pandemic. But behind the scenes, employees were growing increasingly frustrated with the risks they encountered while working low-wage jobs to keep the museum running; their job duties had been modified so that now they were tasked with scanning temperatures and controlling crowds as COVID-19 cases continued to rise that summer, and into the fall. They were provided few accommodations to help ease the stress of returning to work during the height of the pandemic. “I think Gary [Tinterow] just wanted something to brag about,” says one employee. “It feels like they don’t care about me as long as I’m there to make the museum look good. I like what my job used to be, but not what it is now.” 

During the pandemic, the inequities inherent in the museum labor force have become stark: Low wage employees, including security and cleaning staff, face the most risk to protect priceless works of arts in buildings funded by wealthy philanthropists.  Some of that struggle has been chronicled through an anonymous, unverified Instagram account called Change the Museum, where museum workers across the county have posted their grievances with pandemic policies, racism, and classism within the industry. And in large cities with larger and more established art scenes, there’s been more room for criticism of powerful institutions more generally; in Houston, that hasn’t always been the case, says Natilee Harren, an art history and theory professor at the University of Houston.

When the Museum of Fine Arts first reopened to fanfare from the art world, there was still hesitation and fear among art workers who would be staffing the reopening. But Harren was one of the only art critics who brought up safety concerns for workers in her reviews, both when the MFAH first reopened and later, during the Kinder Building opening. “Houston is very ambitious in trying to elevate its profile on the national scene and in that world, nobody wants to be the naysayer,” Harren says. “My motivation for mentioning the labor practices was to give a full picture of what was happening. The museum didn’t need to be reopening.”

In March 2020, the MFAH initially chose to shut its doors and in April, the first statewide shutdown order kept them closed. The first wave of COVID-19 had hit the Houston area. By mid-April, Harris County reported nearly 4,000 COVID-19 infections and 44 deaths. In a virtual staff meeting after the shutdown, which the Observer also received recordings of, Tinterow and the museum’s leadership expressed confidence that the institution could weather the storm, even though the museum was likely facing a $2.5 million deficit.

Museum employees kept collecting paychecks, even as their colleagues nationwide were being laid off or furloughed. According to an analysis from Johns Hopkins University, the nonprofit arts, entertainment and recreation sector lost 35 percent of its jobs due to economic losses through the first year of the pandemic. A survey from the American Alliance of Museums found that over 40 percent of respondents reported lost income over the past year. 

Governor Greg Abbot partially lifted the shutdown order on April 27, and Tinterow’s tone shifted: “It’s absolutely essential that we reopen our doors at some point,” he said in a May 2020 virtual staff meeting. “We can’t perform our function in society for our community, we can’t honor all the donors and the thousands of people who have contributed to our institution for more than a hundred years by being closed.” One of those patrons was Nancy Kinder, whose name adorns the museum’s new wing. Kinder was also appointed to serve on Governor Abbott’s Strike Force to Reopen Texas. When reached for comment a representative for the Kinder Foundation, the family’s philanthropic arm, said that Nancy Kinder’s appointment to the task force was “unrelated to the museum” and that on the task force, she did not have any involvement in shaping museum reopening policies.

Emails obtained through a public records request show that Debbie McNulty, at the time the director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, advised Tinterow to present a “unified sector approach,” with other institutions in Houston’s museum district which were also planning their reopenings. Doing so would “help sell Houston as a destination of choice,” she wrote in an email on May 1. “Something in the sentiment of, ‘Creative Houston is Safe Houston’ or ‘Houston Culture Cares,’ you get the idea.”

The MFAH became the first major museum in the United States to reopen during the pandemic. The Dallas Museum of Art would remain closed until August and at least one Houston museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum, didn’t reopen until the end of February of 2021, pushing back a scheduled January 2021 reopening after COVID-19 cases spiked across the city. In major cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C., museums were subject to waves of rolling closures as cases spiked. 

Inside the MFAH, employees who felt unsafe weren’t always accommodated. In June of 2020, one employee asked for flexibility as employees on their team returned to the office. The employee was denied the ability to continue working remotely, even though they had a medical condition which made COVID-19 more dangerous for them. Nearly all of their job duties could be done remotely, except for the new responsibilities they’d been assigned, like scanning temperatures before people entered the museum building. 

“The head of [human resources] was working from home when he denied my request to work from home,” the former employee says. Instead of offering to discuss accommodations, HR offered medical leave. When leave ran out, the options were to go back to work in-person or take unpaid leave, without the guarantee of a job waiting for them when it felt safe to return. The employee chose to quit in fall of 2020 and was unemployed for six months. The museum’s spokesperson says that “numerous accommodations were offered, to both those on site and working from home, and were addressed on a case-by-case basis,” and that if a staffer wanted to take a leave of absence, it was granted with fewer restrictions than before the pandemic. About a dozen staffers asked for accommodations, according to the spokesperson, but only one took the option of paid leave.

Elsewhere in the museum, an employee who greets guests and scans tickets says that workers were charged with enforcing the museum’s mask mandate, and had to deal with irate visitors who didn’t want to abide by the rules. The confrontations brought on anxiety and severe panic attacks. Employees who brought their concerns to their managers or HR say that for months, those conversations didn’t lead to changes. 

One safety measure the MFAH implemented was asking guests to line up outside as they waited with their timed-entrance tickets, which were meant to reduce crowding inside the museum. In the sweltering, humid Houston summer, that meant that front desk employees were scanning tickets in the heat for shifts that were as long as nine hours. It was brutal on elderly employees and those with medical conditions. Employees who asked for fans were told by museum leadership that fans could circulate virus particles.  

In the fall, internal emails showed that the museum had cut the “special circumstances pay” it had been offering to hourly workers in security, housekeeping, and guest services. From the museum’s reopening in May until September, their paychecks had reflected a 40 hour work week, instead of the reduced hours they were now working during the pandemic.

“As an employer, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has managed to retain its entire permanent full-time and part-time staff, without furloughs or layoffs,” the museum’s spokesperson, Kathryn Jernigan, said in an emailed statement. “We have done so by remaining open to the public, in what we affirm to be the safest possible conditions for our staff and our visitors. We remain, to our knowledge, the only art museum in the country to have invested in the health and safety of our staff by providing free weekly Covid testing since June 2020, and free vaccinations.” According to the museum’s internal testing data, two dozen positive COVID-19 cases have been reported among more than 600 employees since the reopening. 

But emails obtained by the Observer between museum leaders and the City of Houston show that in July, the MFAH was reluctant to provide free testing at the construction site for the Kinder building. Willard Holmes, at the time the museum’s chief operating officer, told a city official in an email that he was worried that such a program “could cause some of our workforce to leave the job, simply out of a misplaced suspicion of government.” A representative from the construction company confirmed that no testing program took place. Workers were informed about how to access testing on their own.

Employees say the museum did not provide free testing to all teams until just before Thanksgiving; a museum spokesperson said that the claim was incorrect and that the museum had provided free testing since June. However, the spokesperson also acknowledged that security staff’s “eligibility for ongoing free testing depends on the location and post and interactions with the public and other staff members.”

With the Kinder building’s opening, the museum made entrance free for all visitors. The free week coincided with Thanksgiving holiday travel, and employees recount seeing larger crowds than ever before. They were scared, especially since some of the visitors had  traveled during the pandemic to visit Houston. During the grand opening, employees working the events recall receiving a county-wide emergency alert urging residents to stay at home and avoid large gatherings. Without a hint of irony, the museum’s leadership had even sent out emails to employees urging them not to travel or gather at home for the holidays. The county had just seen a 40 percent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations from the week prior, and public health experts feared that it was only the beginning of what would be a brutal holiday season. One worker’s family member had just died from COVID-19, yet weeks later, she was worried about exposing herself to the virus every time she showed up to work. The worker had nearly used up all her sick days and vacation days tending to her grandmother. 

“[Tinterow] is going around saying, ‘Everyone is so happy to be back,’” an employee says. “But he’s not talking to us.” Neither, for the most part, were the art critics who wrote glowing reviews of the MFAH’s unveiling of the Kinder building, or hundreds of visitors who had taken unmasked selfies in front of the art. “We believed, and continue to believe, that we are operating the museum under the safest possible conditions,” the museum said in a written statement.

In February, the MFAH’s head of human resources notified employees that a local  vaccine provider would soon be able to offer eligible employees COVID-19 vaccinations. Tinterow replied to the all staff email, telling the head of human resources that it would be great to get his husband, who does not work at the museum, vaccinated too, “so that he can engage with trustees.” An anonymous museum staffer posted screenshots of the email exchange to Change the Museum, writing in the caption: “Gary is prioritizing his [husband’s] safety over the hundreds of high risk frontline staff, including many older people of color – especially in the security department.” In a statement, the museum’s spokesperson said that the screenshots omitted a line from the original email indicating the museum’s HR team could inquire about vaccines for family members.

In April, the institution began providing vaccinations onsite to any employee who wanted one, following relaxed eligibility guidelines set by the state. While waiting in line for a shot, one employee was approached by a human resources staffer who asked them to sign a thank you card for the board of trustees who had helped facilitate the vaccination site.