Working at an art museum in the United States is not all it’s cracked up to be. As public institutions, museums regularly emphasize the social value of art throughout history, achieving high levels of prestige based on the quality of their research and visitor experience. One would expect, then, that museums might embody the ideals promoted in their own programming by materially benefiting the people who make it all possible, from maintenance workers and front-of-house staff to curators and educators.
Instead, for museum workers, wages are low, benefits are lacking, and jobs are far from secure. Upward mobility is only guaranteed to a select few, while the vast majority of workers are relegated to hourly positions and temporary contracts.
With income disparities at an all-time high, museum administrations are making vague promises to increase pay and reinstate jobs that were eliminated during the COVID-19 outbreak — or, in the case of the Guggenheim Museum, transferring wealth upward while claiming to impose executive salary reductions.
This is why museum workers are increasingly trying to take power into their own hands. What started as a few unionizing efforts in 2019 has quickly gained momentum over the last few years. Hundreds of newly formed unions are now working to establish fair contracts.
And just as bosses do across the economy, management is dragging its feet. Workers at the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, have held recent rallies over prolonged delays in negotiations, as have staff members at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, who went on strike in November 2021 and ratified their first contract just last month.
Negotiations at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in particular reveal shocking levels of disinvestment, despite these institutions receiving millions of dollars in federal aid and private philanthropy. Unionized workers are trying to rally the public around their cause. The labor movement has seen a jolt of new energy recently; organizing these museum workers is a part of that upsurge.
On March 29, the Whitney held an invite-only opening event for the 2022 Biennial, Quiet as It’s Kept. In freezing temperatures, members of the press and VIP guests waited in two-hour lines outside the museum. Seeing an opportunity, the Whitney Union — represented by Technical, Office, and Professional Union Local 2110 UAW — handed out leaflets detailing stalled negotiations with management, greeting guests in the lobby wearing union buttons, and speaking with journalists waiting in line.
The union brought out not just Whitney workers but volunteers from other institutions such as the Guggenheim and Brooklyn Museum. “We are educators, curators, front desk and gallery attendants, exhibition coordinators and registrars, production and facilities staff, fundraisers, editors, archivists, custodians, and many more,” read a flier the union passed out. “We are proud to support artists and the creation and presentation of new art in all forms, made possible by our work.”
One month later, on April 19, management offered wage increases to $17 per hour, which was considerably lower than the union’s proposal — and in some cases lower than what workers are presently making. They rejected the offer and, in mid-May, staged another protest during the museum’s annual gala and Studio Party.
Unionists banged drums and held signs referencing the failed negotiations as VIP guests entered the main lobby. “Andy Warhol, Alice Neel . . . $17/hour, are you for real?” read one sign, referring to the works of well-known contemporary artists held in the Whitney’s halls. Turnout for this event was so much higher than the first event that gala attendees had to cover the windows with screens to proceed.
Local 2110 currently represents workers at several other New York institutions, such as the New Museum, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Jewish Museum. As one of five unions at the museum, the Whitney Union represents nearly two hundred front-of-house workers across departments. Together, they voted to unionize last August by a 99 percent margin, but leadership refused voluntary recognition. According to Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein, Whitney directors sent out a press release stating that they recognized the bargaining unit, even though they actually refused.
“The museum is very PR-conscious,” Rosenstein told Jacobin. “But when it comes down to their own workers, they want to get away with the same things any corporate employer wants to get away with: paying people as little as they can, keeping people part-time, without benefits, and miscategorized as temporary or seasonal hires. Half of our unit makes under $20 an hour, and the negotiations are very reflective of that.”
Since November 2021, the union has advocated for basic workplace protections and fortified benefits, particularly for those classified as part-time who are unable to receive benefits. They have also requested an enforceable grievance procedure, a nondiscrimination clause, a restriction on temporary labor that would certify someone an employee after ninety days of work, the streamlining of job titles, and a minimum wage of $25 per hour. Rather than meet them at the table, Rosenstein claims, leadership has worked to divide their unit.
“They presented us with a list of forty-three people they claim are ‘temporary’ and therefore will be let go at the end of the Biennial [in September] — not contractors, regular employees,” she said. “Out of the forty-three, some people have been recently hired, arguably for the Biennial, but some have been there since 2018. They are definitely not temporary employees.”
In April 2020, the Whitney received $5 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, following layoffs of seventy-six employees (followed by layoffs of fifteen more workers in February 2021). The museum has an endowment totaling more than $372 million, and it’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, made more than one million dollars in the fiscal year 2018 — twenty-seven times the earnings of the lowest-paid employees.
Beyond their immediate concerns, the union demonstrated its attunement to Whitney Biennial history, which often exacerbates labor and cultural contradictions. There was an art handlers’ union protest at the 2012 iteration, artist withdrawals and a teach-in with a chorus singing union songs in 2014, and more withdrawals and protests in 2019 when news broke that trustee Warren Kanders owned a weapons manufacturing company.
Ironically, a recent Vanity Fair report celebrated a controversy-free Biennial, mentioning the union in passing. Perhaps, in the minds of the magazine’s editors, worker suppression is not much of a controversy.
Rally in Philly
New York’s status as an art-world nexus grants strong visibility for museum worker struggles, but Philadelphia-area institutions have been roiled in controversy for nearly as long.
A series of workplace abuse and sexual harassment scandals led to a director’s resignation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) in early 2020, followed by layoffs as COVID-19 gripped the city. Then, in August 2020, PMA workers voted in a supermajority to form the first wall-to-wall museum union in the United States. But their negotiations have stalled for almost two years as the PMA undergoes a $233 million dollar expansion designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Front-of-house workers will soon be expected to increase their workload into newly furnished wings despite going without raises since before the pandemic. Currently, the PMA Union, Local 397 of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 47, is in the economic phase of negotiations, but other noneconomic issues are on the agenda, such as reducing the museum’s use of temporary and contract workers. Despite the large number of full-time staff, the museum still contracts third parties for food service and security guards, the latter of whom are unionized separately.
Management has been unclear about their financing since receiving five million dollars in PPP loans during the COVID-19 outbreak, plus another five million from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. At the same time, staff members currently have no salary floor or official pay transparency outside spreadsheets distributed by workers. Benefits are lacking as well, with 89 percent of low-wage workers stuck in health care plans requiring them to meet high deductibles. According to PMA Union president Adam Rizzo, their demands include parity with other institutions, guaranteed annual raises, and opportunities for promotion and transfer between departments.
“So much continued work and organizing goes into winning a contract, plus keeping people engaged and informed in the membership,” Rizzo told Jacobin. “There is so much going into the on-the-ground organizing we have done since the beginning, not to mention all the turnover from staff and new people joining. We are definitely in it for the long haul.”
Over the last two years, leadership has brought in consultants for what Rizzo describes as a “cultural check” and hired anti-union law firm Morgan Lewis. At the same time, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney — who serves as an at-large museum board member — asked leadership to address the sexual harassment scandal, but no mechanism of accountability has been established. Quite the opposite: the union’s requests to add an anti-harassment proposal to their contract have been met with reluctance.
On April 1, the union held a rally on the museum steps, bringing together other unions, city and state politicians, and local branches of the Democratic Socialists of America and Communist Party USA. AFSCME marshals directed traffic and huge banners hung from cars — including one that said “Don’t Be a Duchamp,” referencing the museum’s extensive collection from the renowned conceptual artist. Chants of “Get up, get down, Philly is a union town!” accompanied speeches by Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval and Congresswoman Madeleine Dean. An announcement of Amazon Labor Union’s victory in Staten Island punctuated the afternoon, to cheers from the crowd.
A People’s World report details how United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776 president Wendell Young dared board members to survive on staff salaries amid skyrocketing rents and gas prices. Museum workers discussed how new employees quickly rise to senior positions based on need, urging supporters to email the museum board. They also discussed ambiguity around staff positions: upward of twenty people in the same department carry different job titles and descriptions, allowing for individualized promotions and raises based on arbitrary wording.
In January, the PMA Union called out management online for stalled negotiations, forcing them to raise wages to $15 an hour. And in early June, the union announced a new strike fund so they can afford to enact work stoppages without pay. These actions show their ability to appeal to a wider audience outside the museum’s walls and endure prolonged delays as management tries to wait them out.
“The museum would like to think dragging this out as long as possible is somehow going to depress our enthusiasm, but in fact the opposite is happening,” he said. “I’m really proud of our members and the level of engagement, whether we are picketing or rallying. This union is the biggest reason I still work at the museum, because of its potential to change the structure of such a large institution. Our organizing improves the quality of life for our community and hopefully influences leadership to adopt some of the values they proclaim outwardly.”
Negotiating the Future
Two years after COVID-19 shuttered US museums, their administrations are only marginally closer to resolving disparities the pandemic exacerbated. But unionists are reaching across institutional divides to prioritize workplace protections. Take, for example, Starbucks Workers United members crashing the MoMA’s Party in the Garden fundraiser to protest their honoring company chairwoman — a direct extension of last year’s Strike MoMA protests against trustees and board members tied up with reactionary pursuits.
Museums are supposed to be publicly owned institutions that serve their communities. In their present iteration, however, they mostly serve a leisure class of elite directors and trustees with little experience in day-to-day operations. The uptick in union activity will surely mean more solidarity from left-wing activists and organizations. What workers need now is material proof that their labor is really valued.