Museum Workers Are Tired of Being Paid in Cultural Cachet — So They’re Unionizing

A major unionization movement is underway at cultural institutions, with workers at over 30 museums across the US currently at various stages of organizing. Workers say prestige doesn’t make up for low pay, bad benefits, and toxic work conditions.

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. (Wikimedia Commons)

Cultural workers have long been told that the prestige of working in museums and galleries makes up for their low wages and lack of benefits. But in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are rejecting that message. Over the last two and a half years, the unionization process in the art world has exposed the toxic work environments in many institutions, and revealed shockingly low salaries across the job sector as the cost of living continues to rise. Now, there is a major unionization movement in the cultural heritage sector, with over thirty museums across the US currently at various stages of organizing.

On August 8, after two years of negotiations, staff at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City became the latest to ratify their first contract with an overwhelming 97 percent majority. The Guggenheim Union consists of 150 staff members across departments, including visitor service, education, curatorial, administrative, and other departments. The union first began to organize in the fall of 2021 under the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110. Some highlights from the first contract include a minimum 9 percent wage increase over the next two and a half years, an increase in retirement contributions, four weeks paid family leave, and funding for career training retroactive to July 1. One major victory is that this contract guarantees minimum rates for full- and part-time employees.

The UAW now represents workers at various museums in New York City and across the Northeast, including the Whitney, the New Museum, Mass MoCA, and others, testifying to the scale of the museum unionization movement. And the trend is not restricted to museum workers. In 2021, art handlers and faculties also joined the labor movement when they reached their own three-year agreement with the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 30.

The Guggenheim’s contact comes amid one of the largest periods of upheaval in the museum’s history, involving major public shake-ups in leadership. Following the announcement that Richard Armstrong would step down this year, the museum has no permanent director. A 2020 controversy caused Nancy Spector, the chief curator at the time, to step down amid allegations of racism. While an independent investigation found that the complaints made against Spector were unfounded, the day the report was released, Spector nevertheless announced her departure.

Museum union members across the country have had to negotiate under tense circumstances with museum administrators. As at the Guggenheim, members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s (PMA) union also fought for their first contract amid public controversies, including an internal investigation of sexual harassment claims against one manager — the mishandling of which compelled director Timothy Rub to step down — and reports of physical abuse by another manager. In the fall of 2022, as new director Stacy Suda adjusted to her new role, PMA workers went on a three-week strike that virtually shut down the museum and threatened to disrupt its blockbuster Matisse show.

In October of 2022, the PMA union finally ratified a first contract with a 99 percent majority. The union’s victories included a 14 percent increase in wages through June 2025, a reduction of health care costs, four weeks of paternity leave, and an increase in the minimum hourly wage at the museum to $16.75. However, in June many art outlets reported that PMA had backtracked on the pay increases in the contract. This prompted an online petition that has to date gotten over two thousand signatures, and a formal complaint from the union. With no real resolution in sight, it’s apparent that a contract is not a silver bullet to fix the problems that have plagued cultural institutions for decades. Unions will have to stay active and keep organizing throughout the months and years ahead.

In August the PMA hiked its admission price from $25 to $30, following on the heels of Whitney and Guggenheim. The Met also raised its price to $30 in 2022, although for residents of the Tristate admission is pay as you wish. Between these price hikes and museums’ large endowments, they are no doubt able to afford living wages for workers — and yet salaries remain strikingly low. For context, a recent job listing on the Guggenheim’s website for a full-time Associate Manager in Institutional Giving & Government Affairs has a base salary of $55-60,000. The average rental cost of a studio apartment in New York City this year is $3,300 per month, meaning that a single person who accepted the Guggenheim position could easily end up devoting 72 percent of their income to rent. The Guggenheim’s endowment is valued at $134 million.

It’s true that museums and galleries are under immense pressure, dealing with the fallout of COVID-19, rising inflation, and an international art market that is forever fluctuating. But at the center of it all remain the artists and workers who make the industry run. You cannot have art without artists, and museums and galleries without cultural workers to staff them. Systematic transformation of the industry is a long-term prospect, but unionization is the key to making change from the inside out.