Artists Can Build Power as Workers

Art workers are organizing in response to miserable pay and working conditions. The history of artist unions in the United States can help them chart a path forward.

Protesters rally outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2019. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Across the United States, art workers are developing new ways to build power. An ongoing wave of museum unionizations is bringing class politics to the forefront of the art world for the first time since the 1970s. This has led to a resurgence of protests against museum leadership and various union interventions at high-profile exhibitions and galas, in spite of administrative attempts to lay off dissenting staff and corral employees into separate unions within the same institution.

This unionized base is expanding. Much like academia, the philanthropy-driven art industry relies on a “precariat” class of workers to serve a leisure class of directors, financiers, gallerists, and auctioneers. Consequently, museum unions are widening their scope to those whose labor often goes unnoticed in the creative economy — from freelance educators to porters and cleaners — while art workers across the cultural sector form unions of their own.

In the last century, each major economic and social crisis has found American artists banding together to protect their rights and collective interests, including health care, rent relief, and federal programming. Today’s crisis is no different: outside of museums, artists are forming filmmaker and musician unions, workers’ inquiries into art-world exploitation, and independent bargaining units to represent gig workers. As such, the history of artist unions in the United States can help us map out their future in today’s burgeoning labor movement.

Art Workers Unite

In a 1936 issue of Art Front, Marxist art critic Meyer Schapiro diagnosed a fundamental contradiction within the New Deal: “Workers and artists are not of one class or role in society.” At the time, artists were receiving government employment for the first time in US history; industrial workers did not receive those same guarantees, meaning their support for the Federal Art Project would likely not extend beyond an emergency program.

“The possibility of working-class support [for artists] depends on the recognition by the workers that this program of art has real value to them,” Schapiro writes. “It depends further on a solidarity of artists and workers expressed in common economic and political demands.”

Schapiro argued that government concessions could always be revoked, making it crucial for artists to align with broader working-class interests. This was among the founding principles of the Artists Union, which included several Communist Party USA (CPUSA) members and published Art Front.

Originally the Unemployed Artists Group, New York City artists and writers such as Max Spivak, Bernarda Bryson, Phil Bard, Stuart Davis, and Ibram Lassaw developed a formidable trade union that grew from meetings of the John Reed Club, the CPUSA organization for writers and artists, and early iterations of the “art strike.” Their protests, pickets, and sit-ins in prominent museums and offices of public officials drew hundreds and even thousands of artists; they became infamously known as the “fire brigade” for showing up to a variety of worker actions throughout the Great Depression.

The Artists Union represented many immigrant artists who aligned with other unions and leftist organizations, often participating in anti-fascist demonstrations. When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) took effect, the union became the Federal Art Project’s de facto bargaining unit. Each time President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to reduce their funding, the fire brigade would hold mass demonstrations that brought together up to 1,200 art workers.

“We say that our resistance will take on such a character as to smash any efforts to institute dismissals regardless of protest,” organizer Boris Gorelick announced at a rally on November 30, 1936.

The next day, New York Police Department officers clashed with union members as they held a sit-in at the Fifth Avenue Art Project office, wounding twelve and arresting 219 of them. After leading a series of strikes against the WPA’s closure, the union merged with the Commercial Artists and Designers Union and Cartoonists Guild to form the United American Artists Local 60 of the Communist-run United Office and Professional Workers of America.

The Artists Union ultimately never survived the McCarthyist era of anti-communist repression. Other than a strike wave of actors, musicians, and animators in the 1940s, artists were largely unorganized, though some sculptors like David Smith joined industrial unions based on their experience with metalwork. The tide eventually turned in the early 1960s, when a rising generation of American artists influenced by the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement looked back to the 1930s.

In the lead-up to the 1973 stock market crash, artists realized that the work of art as a commodity began at conception under capitalism, as opposed to serving a personal or social purpose. As Australian artist Ian Burn wrote in 1975, “What we’ve more recently seen is the power of market values to distort all other values, so even the concept of what is and is not acceptable as ‘work’ is defined first and fundamentally by the market and only secondly by ‘creative urges.’” While the Nixon administration enacted, in 1973, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a federal jobs program meant to exist beyond a period of economic downturn, the Reagan administration ordered its removal in 1983 — just as Schapiro warned decades earlier.

This period saw the rise of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), an artists’ union that based its creative practices around class tensions in art spaces. Inspired by the Spiral Group and Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the AWC tied issues of racism and sexism within the industry to broader geopolitical issues. Artists and critics such as Lucy Lippard, Carl Andre, Faith Ringgold, Wen-Ying Tsai, Robert Morris, and Tom Lloyd staged antiwar protests at major museums, called for a minimum wage and guaranteed health care for artists, expressed solidarity with anti-imperial movements in the Global South, and protested collusion between the ruling class and public institutions.

Strike MoMA protestors gather in front of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in May 2021. (Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Inspired by the Artists Union and Communist organizing of the nineteenth century, the AWC believed that museums, in their highly financialized state, were incapable of truly interpreting art’s role in society. They organized a significant art strike in 1970 that condemned police killings of university students protesting the Vietnam War and the museum trustees’ profiteering from it. These early actions — as well as their list of thirteen demands to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) — led to the founding of the MoMA’s first union with the Distributive Workers of America and redefined discussions around labor in the arts after the second Red Scare.

The AWC’s actions became infamous in US museums and galleries throughout the early ’70s, leading to a proliferation of similar unions and organizations across the industry. The founding of the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists, Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, Where We At, and Women Artists in Revolution bolstered representation among black and women artists. Likewise, the Puerto Rican Art Workers’ Coalition, Guerrilla Art Action Group, Boston Visual Artists’ Union, and collaborations with the International Wages for Housework Campaign further broke down race, class, and gender divisions throughout the country.

In Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, Julia Bryan-Wilson argues that the AWC tried in vain to bridge the gap between the terms “artist” and “worker,” claiming that “though art workers attempted to organize collective political actions, collective art making was not widely embraced or emphasized.” Through it all, the AWC never resolved the unbalanced financial situations of artists at different levels of commercial success, leading members to prioritize their individualist practices. “Most did not question single authorship, even as they identified as a coalition,” she writes.

This last point is echoed by Dana Kopel in a recent essay on organizing the New Museum in Manhattan. Kopel writes that AWC artist Hans Haacke supported their union campaign but maintained his distance to protect his own exhibition.

“There I was in Le Pain Quotidien with Hans Haacke, legendary proponent of institutional critique, and he’d just told us he would cross our picket line,” Kopel writes.

Creators of the World

These early unions speak to a growing class consciousness among artists during periods of economic turmoil, as well as opportunism within an atomized profession. Ultimately, the AWC’s experimental art practices and focus on copyright laws alienated them from trade unions during postindustrial party realignment, because self-advancement stood opposite to collective uplift. The Reagan era would usher in extreme depoliticization in the art world.

Today, in a new age of austerity and artificial scarcity, unemployment in the cultural sector remains high, despite essential contributions to the national GDP. Federal funding is out of the question outside the notoriously flawed National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which is developing a small grant program confusingly promoted as a present-day WPA. Besides residencies and grants from foundations and nonprofits, art workers are subject to unstable gig work, and our labor remains incredibly devalued.

Because of this, new organizational structures are emerging in highly specialized labor forces, such as the Music Workers Alliance, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Anthology Film Workers, the Model Alliance, and Comic Book Workers United. In visual art, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) functions as a solidarity union for artists negotiating with nonprofits, while Strike MoMA is tying elite corruption in the art world to capitalist exploitation worldwide.

We need to run with this momentum to establish shared interests with workers across industries, from universal health care and affordable housing to communal public spaces. This means revisiting Antonio Gramsci’s description of the “demiurge,” an ancient perception of the artist as “creator of the world” whose highly personalized work synthesizes “humanity and spirituality.” Gramsci lamented that the “puritanical” division of labor, promoted by Henry Ford, sought to dismantle creative agency and break age-old solidarity between artists and society. With many working-class artists holding rank-and-file jobs to sustain their practice, we are uniquely positioned to dispel the myth that art is reserved for elites.

Real labor power requires communicating across divides perpetuated by the capitalist market. Art should belong to the people, and art workers can only truly challenge the dominant order by standing together.