A Unionization Wave Is Reshaping Museums and Cultural Institutions Across the US

Thought performative overturesMuseums and art have been given a veneer of radicalism by their commitment to social justice and diversity. However, recent labor organizing efforts within the sector have made it clear how quickly management will challenge these values. when material issues of economic and racial equity arise within their own institutions. As the pressures placed on staff have been compounded by the pandemicThe workforces of cultural institutions across the country have been newly galvanized into collective action.

Last month, employees at Baltimore’s historic Walters Art Museum announced their intentionsTo unite and join AFSCME Council 67This is one example of the recent upswells in mobilization. As a group, museum staff met as Walters Workers United (WWU) to contest “abusive treatment from managers with little to no oversight, the lack of ability to advance internally, and an inequitable pay structure across the lines of race and class,” Lex Reehill, a member of the WWU organizing committee and Monitor Room officer in the Walters security department, told Truthout. (This confrontation with injustice in a liberal institution is aptly symbolized by the museum’s grappling with new revelationsThe Confederacy was supported by its eponymous founder, who is often portrayed as an abolitionist. owned slaves.)

Reehill, considered an essential worker, described stagnant hourly rates: “We also hope to achieve more equitable pay…. After five years in my job, I make $15 an hr. Many of my colleagues are in the same position. This is the same amount an entry-level employee will make on day one.”

“Our job and our responsibilities are vital to the safety of the museum, and I feel as though our experience and dedication are not valued right now,” Reehill said.

Criticisms like Reehill’s are echoed by many other workers in cultural institutions across the U.S.

Untenable Conditions

Museums, which are the preservers and central public goods of invaluable cultural heritage, have been infested like many other American institutions. virulent privatization. Art and history museums are heavily dependent upon private funding and are therefore closely interwoven with the interests and benefactors of their ultra-wealthy patrons.

Highly paid executives and directors in places such as these are highly regarded The New MuseumThe SF Museum of Modern ArtHave supervise declines in pay and benefitsWhile elite board members, trustees and donorsTheir wealth and influence can be used to inscribe the field with your priorities. These American centers of culture are renowned for making workers suffer from intolerable conditions. abysmal pay, poor resources and discrimination, high turnover, an excluded, elitist culture, and, often, retaliationFor complaints or organizing efforts. Inequalities in labor exploitation, workplace safety and mismanagement are rampant.

These realities are a microcosmic representation of the wider austerity conditions in the United States. Museums and other institutions have the ability to take advantage of some aspects of the field to sustain unequal practices. For example, there are more liberal arts graduates looking for employment at major art institutions than could be absorbed in the museum industry. A job at a well-respected art organization can have a certain cachet even though it is not well paid or offers poor working conditions. Many are drawn to these jobs because they want to be ambassadors for culture and caretakers of the arts.

Adam Rizzo, who works in the education department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) and serves as the president of the PMA’s sizeable union, described this dynamic to Truthout: “There’s this idea that’s been circulating — and even I was enculturated to believe it — that the prestige element is compensation in and of itself.”

This patina prestigiousness and job shortage instills expectations for sacrifice, causing young and eager artists to give up their dreams and to accept poor job conditions. “I think a lot of folks are realizing that this is a harmful thing to internalize as a worker, and all of us together are much stronger in being able to advocate for each other in the workplace,” said Rizzo. Kaitlyn, Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) video editor, and designer, commented. in an interview with Jacobin, “Past presidents of BAM have said, ‘It’s not a job, it’s a crusade.’ … Working at a cultural institution shouldn’t mean that we have to live piously and be martyrs for its mission.”

These ephemeral rewards do not add to the material compensation that is often severely lacking. The median pay for low-level positions that are often exposed to the public (security guards or visitor associates for example) is approximately $47,050 in the range of $30,000This contrasts sharply to the outrageously high pay of top executives.

As The New York Times has reported, museum directors’ pay packages are drawing increasing scrutiny. Some leaders have permitted their salaries to be cut to make a sacrifice in the face of the pandemic. Richard Armstrong at Guggenheim is one such leader. voluntarily took a 25 percent cut — but, as staff activist group A Better Guggenheim pointed out, a one-quarter reduction means a lot less when one’s income is already an annual $1.4 million. Similar institutions have similarly high executive pay, which underlines the low wages offered to many workers.

Additionally, even though the ultrawealthy were always close to the arts, their contribution to modern museums has gone far beyond peripheral patronage. Rich donors now account for 29.2 per cent of museum revenue, which is second only to the 35.5% from earned sources such as admission fees. a 2019 IBIS report on the museum industry. Public funds, however, are scarce. Correspondingly, management and staff have had to act as “courtiers to the rich,” dependent on their sponsorship and financing, as Rhonda Lieberman put it in an article in The New Republic.

The public has also become increasingly attuned to museums’ utility in allowing for tax write-offs for the wealthy. Known as “art washing,” these sleights-of-hand allow the rich to treat collections as charitable donations with 501(c)(3) status, hold wealth in tax-exempt nonprofit foundations or otherwise shield their assets from taxation. Their wealth can get them seats on boards or buy them access to elites, status and access to other elites. some positive PR — reputational laundering through self-aggrandizing “philanthropy.” As a result, some museums have become a literal rogue’s gallery,Their boards were under the influence of billionaires and hedge fund managers, oligarchs, oligarchs as well as fossil fuel executives, fossil fuel executives, arms dealers, robber barons and other robber barons.

Staff and contributors voiced out against the hypocrisy that they see in unethical financing. This was evident when artists protested Warren Kanders, Whitney Museum Vice Chair, over his ownership of an arms manufacturerThat used tear gas to kill migrants at the border. Employees, activists, artists have demonstratedLarry Fink, BlackRock executive and MoMA Board member; his investments in private prisons and mercenary contractor and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. banking and hedge fund sponsorshipThe New York MoMA. BP’s ties to the British Museum (as well as the latter’s display of the spoils of colonialism); against a London gallery owner’s connections to an Israeli cybersecurity firm selling anti-dissident spyware — examples abound, as do calls for resignations. The sector is in a critical moment: a “reckoning,” as moreThere are more oneCommentator has described it. An increasing number of workers are unable to tolerate the hypocrisy and incompetence of directors and trustees, given the prevalence of sexual harassment, labor exploitation, racial discrimination, the legacies imperialism and other sprawling injustices that permeate culture and the arts.

The COVID Crucible

It’s within this charged context that remarkable momentum has been building for labor organizing. Unionization pushes and a greater awareness of poor on the-job conditions both are important. predate COVID-19However, the pandemic shock further increased tensions by imposing tremendous pressures. An October 2020 surveyThe American Alliance of Museums surveyed 850 museum workers and found that 53 per cent had laid off or furloughed their staff, both full- and part-time. Another Alliance surveyIt was found that 43% of museum workers are unemployed. reported lost income during COVID.

While pandemics have certainly had an effect, institutions are not solely dependent on ticket revenue. A report from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Cultural Workers United (AFSCME CWU) assessed cultural institutions’ receipt of federal aid during the pandemic and assembled information on COVID’s impact, pay disparities and the role of unions. Researchers found that natural history museums and aquariums are more dependent on the public, while museums of art and history are funded more heavily by private interests. These museums fared the worst after closures. However, some organizations that rely less heavily on public revenue actually had operating surpluses.

The AFSCME report details that $1.6 billion was received by institutions surveyed under the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP). Three percent of top institutional recipients received 48% of the money. The loans were specifically earmarked to maintain payroll and hire back employees. Despite the huge amount of pandemic aid disbursed, the 228 biggest cultural institutions, which received $771.4million, decided to make layoffs and cut 14,400 jobs. Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), is an example. Despite posting a 2020 operating surplus of $2.3 million, declaring assets of $169.2 million “and the infusion of $3.3 million in PPP loans, MOCA laid off 97 part-time workers during the pandemic” — some of the lowest-paid staff. Layoffs have been common in the field. disproportionately affectedPart-time and BIPOC workers

Collective action was the only way to stop these injustices. The AFSCME report found that organized workforces fared significantly better: note researchers, of those surveyed, “there were 28 percent fewer workforce reductions at unionized institutions.” Heading off the threat of layoffs, exercising recall (rehiring) rights, obtaining better COVID safety protocols, personal protective equipment and hazard pay — it was clear that organized labor serves as a key guarantor of critical worker protections.

Organizing in Response

Cultural staff, like many U.S. workforces, were reminded recently that there is power within a union. The Washington Post citedStatistics from the Union Membership and Coverage DatabaseThis indicates that museums with organized workforces have reached a seven year high in 2020 with 13 percent unionized. This rate is expected to rise.

Museum unions are not new — for instance, a groundbreaking union at the New York MoMAIt was 1971, when the art world was also involved in it. institutional self-critique. Cultural labor has seen a renewed dynamism. Philadelphia Museum of Art workers provided an opening salvo. unionized with the AFSCMEAugust 6, 2020 The first American museum staff to win an award was from the PMA Union. a wall-to-wall union, one in which all employees are eligible to join — and they won it with a resounding 89 percentVotes in favor. The PMA now plays host to one of the nation’s largest museum unions. Over the past year, they’ve set to work on winning a new contract and resolving the PMA’s incarnation of the same longstanding issuesThese issues plague the entire field: understaffing, pay disparity and racism. sexual harassmentTo name just a few.

Rizzo spoke out against the intransigence of management. “They’ve been fighting us on the simplest things in the contract,” he told Truthout. Morgan Lewis, a law firm that the museum has hired, is also available for hire. that specializes in combating union efforts. (Tellingly, it’s also a favorite of Amazon’s.) “Museum management is not used to having to answer to anyone, and they drag their feet, and they try and slow down the process as much as possible to try to discourage us,” Rizzo said. “But that hasn’t worked — the membership is more engaged than ever.”

The union is wall-to–wall is a notable feature. This is because there is more strength in a larger membership. However, the model also allows for greater representation of roles, engendering unity. “The way these institutions are set, it’s very hierarchical, very siloed, and we wanted to create a different model for collaboration,” continued Rizzo. “I think there’s a benefit to [creating a community] in and of itself.… Across the institution, different departments are fighting for similar things … and now we can come together as a group and advocate for them together. It’s important, and it’s working.”

Partly, a widely shared idea catalyzed this drive to the PMA. collaborative salary spreadsheetThis helped to highlight pay disparities and provided much-needed transparency in industry. Workers from many departments and roles shared their compensation, including directors, artists, visitor service employees, security, IT workers, and janitors. The large sampling made the divisions seem especially stark.

“It very quickly started conversations across several different departments about the salary disparities that were becoming quickly visible,” Rizzo said. “And looking at the field writ large, [we could see] how depressed the wages were across museum institutions — seeing the huge gap between executive pay and the people who are doing the everyday work of the museum.”

Rizzo was a key organizer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art union. now over a year oldIt was a great example of an early and inspiring development. Since then, many other cultural workforces have taken up the challenge. Rizzo described being connected with other organizers and workers at other museums and cultural organisations, receiving advice, support, encouragement, and other expressions in solidarity. “I don’t think any one of these museums is doing this alone.”

Cultural workers do appear to be working in concert. unionization waveIt is of extraordinary scope. The following are just a few examples of museum workforces that have been able to organize or are taking steps towards organizing. Whitney, The New Museum, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim MuseumThe Milwaukee Art Museum, The Carnegie MuseumPittsburgh Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, Portland Museum of ArtMaine The Brooklyn MuseumLos Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

Workers at the Tenement MuseumAfter combining, they are merged together a mutual aid driveSupport fellow workers. Security staffThey were organized around their specific concerns at the Frye in Seattle. This isn’t something that happens only in the arts: EcoTarium science and nature museumWorcester, Massachusetts voted in July to join the AFSCME.

The momentum is still going strong. The momentum is continuing. Baltimore Museum of ArtIn October, the company announced that it would join AFSCME. On November 2, Art Institute of ChicagoEmployees filed petitions for a union vote. On November 17, employees of Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) filed petitions for a union election. represented since last year by United Auto Workers Local 2110 after a “landslide” vote, authorized and held a one-day strike. Their aim was to protest stalled contract negotiations and issues around “pay, safety, workplace diversity, requiring union membership, and job growth,” as Local 2110 member Eve Mayberger told The Boston Globe. At the MFA, worker pay has remained low, while museum Director Matthew Teitelbaum’s 2020 salary of $992,414, a union press release notes, “is almost nineteen times the average worker salary of $53,400.” Again and again, the same problems recur across the sector.

Managements have been dissatisfied by all the labor agitation. Many have subverted organizing efforts in a reflexive move. Writing in The Baffler, Dana Kopel described the “rampant exploitation,” “entrenched hierarchies” and “toxic competitiveness and secrecy” she witnessed in her employment at The New Museum, an institution where exhibitions often evinced radical politics. She and her coworkers suffered bitter retaliation during their unionizing effort. It culminated at the point when The New Museum capitalized on the pandemic. to rid themselvesSupporters of unions. Marciano Art Foundation also follows this model. laid off the entire visitor services staffAfter they announced their plans to unify, so did the Portland Museum of ArtMaine. Anti-union initiatives such as fearmongering or misinformation encountered by workersThe Brooklyn Academy of Music is a common place for the adoption of hardline stancesDuring contract negotiations

The Walters, where Reehill is employed, has seen the emergence of a union met with intransigent management. The museum has taken issue with the composition and size of the bargaining unit. Its management is trying to forcefully force voluntary recognition by refusing to recognize it. a unionization voteto be routed through NLRB which would likely cause a division in the wall-to–wall union. (In fact, the NLRB may not even have jurisdiction — contrary to management’s insistence, workers contend that Walters is a public museum, while the NLRB deals with the private sector.) Reehill explained that to Truthout, “Going to the NLRB will, by definition, leave myself and everyone who works in the Security department out of the same bargaining unit as the rest of my colleagues. Our work is so closely linked to other departments (e.g. Maintenance, Visitor Experience, or Collections), that it can only be considered a strategic decision to separate us. A wall-to-wall union is the only way for Walters employees to ensure that our collective voice is heard and that our concerns are taken seriously.”

Return to a Public good

Despite its rarefied status as the caretaker and steward of historical and artistic inheritance, the world of cultural institutions is filled with the same kinds of exploitation as other corporate hierarchies. Its financing is deeply connected with the interests and power of the highest echelons. Despite liberal bona fides, pointedly visible “philanthropy” and protestations to the contrary, the interests of cultural institutions’ managements and capitalist funders are still fundamentally counterposed with those of their workforces. The field has seen a rise in labor organizing. This has been made possible by a recognition of the interestsMuseum workers have a lot in common as long-standing tensions are brought to the forefront by the pandemic, and the depredations that austerity brings.

That the management and executives of cultural institutions reliably oppose unionization is indicative of unions’ potential power to rebalance those interests. We can perhaps hope for a world where collective action can be sustained to transform the curators of cultural treasures from their current state as corporate enterprises and ersatz charities to return them to the status that they are now public goods. Perhaps through concerted radical organizing, those who work in and cherish the arts can fashion institutions that do not replicate the same structural inequities that artists’ works often critique.

This new wave of solidarity and labor action gives reason to be optimistic. Reehill states that the Walters Art Museum union has helped to build a strong union, despite its many challenges.

“I work with dedicated, passionate people who want what’s best for the Walters at the end of the day. It’s been a difficult 2 years. Many of my colleagues moved on to other jobs. Many of their reasons for leaving were the same ones we want to address through forming a union. I would like to see the efforts of my coworkers recognized, fairly compensated, and protected from further burnout and mistreatment.”

It is clear that cultural workers all over the country are now mobilizing to claim the same.