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

People maintain distance as they watch an exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on May 30, 2021, in New York, United States.

Though performative overtures to social justice and diversity have lent the museum and art world a veneer of radicalism, a recent wave of labor organizing efforts within the sector has made clear how quickly management will controvert these professed values when material issues of economic and racial equity arise within their own institutions. As the pressures imposed on staff have been compounded by the pandemic, the workforces of cultural institutions nationwide have been newly galvanized into collective action.

Last month, employees at Baltimore’s historic Walters Art Museum announced their intentions to unionize and join AFSCME Council 67, in one example of this recent upswell of mobilization. Museum staff came together 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 revelations that its eponymous founder, mythologized as an abolitionist, was in fact a supporter of the Confederacy who owned slaves.)

Reehill, considered an essential worker, described stagnant hourly rates: “We also hope to achieve more equitable pay…. I make $15 an hour after five years working in my position, as do several of my colleagues in the same role. 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, the preservers of invaluable cultural heritage and a central public good, have, like so many other American institutions, become infested with virulent privatization. Art and history museums are heavily dependent on private funding, and as such are tightly interwoven with the interests of their ultra-wealthy benefactors.

Highly paid directors and executives in places as lauded as The New Museum and the SF Museum of Modern Art have overseen declines in pay and benefits while elite board members, trustees and donors use their wealth and influence to inscribe the field with their priorities. These vaunted American centers of culture subject workers to intolerable conditions: abysmal pay, poor resources, discrimination, high turnover, an exclusionary, elitist culture and, commonly, retaliation for complaints or organizing efforts. Iniquities in labor exploitation, workplace safety, mismanagement and exclusionary insider hierarchies are rampant.

These realities are in some sense a microcosm of the broader conditions of austerity in the United States. However, museums and other institutions are able to leverage some particularities of the field in order to sustain unequal practices. For example, there are many more liberal arts graduates who are keen to find employment at a major art institution than could be absorbed by the museum industry; among many, a job at a distinguished art organization confers a certain cachet, even if it pays badly or has poor working conditions. Moreover, many are drawn to these jobs out of a desire to contribute to a greater good as caretakers of the arts and ambassadors for societal engagement with culture.

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.”

Job scarcity and this patina of prestigiousness instills expectations of sacrifice, pressing young and eager arts graduates and low-paid workers to capitulate to 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. As Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) video editor and designer Kaitlyn Chandler 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.”

The ephemeral benefits do little to augment material compensation that is often sorely lacking. The median pay for low-level, often public-facing positions (security guards or visitor associates, for example) can be in the range of $30,000, contrasting sharply with the cartoonishly inflated pay lavished on top executives.

As The New York Times has reported, museum directors’ pay packages are drawing increasing scrutiny. Some leaders have allowed reductions to their own salaries to make a sacrificial gesture during the pandemic; Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong, for example, 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. Executive pay is similarly bloated in comparable institutions, which has a way of underscoring the pittances offered to many workers.

Furthermore, though the ultrawealthy have always been close to the arts, their role in the modern museum has extended far beyond peripheral patronage: Rich benefactors now provide 29.2 percent of revenue in museums, second only to the 35 percent from earned sources like admission fees, as noted in a 2019 IBIS report on the museum industry. Public funds, meanwhile, are scant. 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 win them seats on boards of trustees and buy them a boost in status, access to other elites and some positive PR — reputational laundering through self-aggrandizing “philanthropy.” As a result, some museums have become a literal rogue’s gallery, their boards under the sway of billionaires, oligarchs, hedge fund managers, fossil fuel executives, arms dealers and robber barons of all kinds.

Staff and contributors have spoken out against the hypocrisy they perceive in such unethical financing, as when artists protested Whitney Museum Vice Chairman Warren Kanders over his ownership of an arms manufacturer that made tear gas for use on migrants at the border. Activists, employees, and artists have demonstrated against BlackRock executive and MoMA board member Larry Fink and his investments in private prisons, mercenary contractors and Immigration and Customs Enforcement; against banking and hedge fund sponsorship of the New York MoMA; against 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 more than one commentator has described it. Workers are increasingly unwilling to tolerate the hypocrisy of trustees and directors in light of the prevalence of sexual harassment, labor exploitation, racial discrimination, the legacies of imperialism, and other sprawling injustices the permeate the world of arts and culture.

The COVID Crucible

It’s within this charged context that remarkable momentum has been building for labor organizing. Unionization pushes and an increased awareness of poor on-the-job conditions both predate COVID-19, but the shock of the pandemic further accelerated tensions by imposing tremendous pressures. An October 2020 survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums polled 850 respondents from U.S. museums and found that 53 percent had laid off or furloughed staff, both part- and full-time. Another Alliance survey found that 43 percent of museum workers reported lost income during COVID.

However, while pandemic closures have certainly had an impact, institutions are not monolithically reliant 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. The researchers note that art and history museums are more heavily funded by private interests, while natural history museums, zoos and aquariums have a deeper reliance on the public. The latter group, as a result, fared the worst in the wake of closures, while conversely, some of those organizations that rely less on public revenues actually ended up with operating surpluses.

The AFSCME report goes on to detail that the institutions surveyed received, in total, $1.6 billion in federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) assistance during the pandemic. (Three percent of top institutional recipients received 48 percent of the money.) The loans were explicitly earmarked for maintaining payroll and hiring back employees. But despite the vast disbursement of pandemic aid, the 228 largest cultural institutions, which received $771.4 million, proceeded with layoffs anyway, cutting 14,400 jobs. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles is an illustrative 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. Throughout the field, layoffs have disproportionately affected part-time and BIPOC workers.

The only bulwark against these injustices was collective action. 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

Accordingly, cultural staff, like many other U.S. workforces lately, have been reminded that there is power in a union. The Washington Post cited statistics from the Union Membership and Coverage Database indicating that museums with organized workforces reached a seven-year high in 2020, with 13 percent unionized. That rate promises to increase.

Museum unions are not new — for instance, a groundbreaking union at the New York MoMA emerged in 1971, at a time when the art world was also engaged in institutional self-critique. But cultural labor has been infused with a new dynamism. An opening salvo came when workers at Philadelphia Museum of Art unionized with the AFSCME on August 6, 2020. The PMA Union marked the first U.S. museum staff had won a wall-to-wall union, one in which all employees are eligible to join — and they won it with a resounding 89 percent of votes 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 issues that plague the whole field: pay disparity, understaffing, pandemic safety, racism and sexual harassment, to name a few.

Rizzo described intransigence on the part of management. “They’ve been fighting us on the simplest things in the contract,” he told Truthout. The museum has also hired a law firm, Morgan Lewis, 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 fact that the union is wall-to-wall is particularly noteworthy: Not only is there greater strength in a larger membership, but the model also allows for wider representation of roles, engendering solidarity. “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.”

The drive at the PMA was catalyzed, in part, by a widely shared collaborative salary spreadsheet, which helped accentuate pay disparities and provided some much-needed transparency in the industry. Workers from varied departments and roles shared their compensation: directors, artists, visitor services employees, security, IT workers, janitors, and more. The wide sampling made the divides appear particularly 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.”

The union that Rizzo helped organize at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, now over a year old, was an early and inspirational development; numerous other cultural workforces have since taken up the mantle. Rizzo described being in connection with other organizers and workforces at other museums and cultural organizations, receiving advice, mutual support and encouragement and other expressions of solidarity. “I don’t think any one of these museums is doing this alone.”

Cultural workers certainly do seem to be acting in concert: The unionization wave is of remarkable scope. Just some of the other museum workforces that have successfully organized recently, or taken steps toward doing so, include the Whitney, The New Museum, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, The Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

Workers at the Tenement Museum, after unionizing, put together a mutual aid drive to support fellow workers. Security staff organized around their particular concerns at the Frye in Seattle. Neither is this occurring exclusively in the arts world: The EcoTarium science and nature museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, voted to join the AFSCME in July.

The momentum is ongoing. The Baltimore Museum of Art announced its plans to join the AFSCME in October. On November 2, Art Institute of Chicago employees filed petitions for a union election. And on November 17, employees of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), 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.

In response to all this labor agitation, managements have been, to say the last, displeased. Many have moved reflexively to subvert organizing efforts. 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 experienced bitter retaliation in the course of their unionizing effort, culminating at the point when the museum capitalized on the pandemic to rid themselves of union supporters. The Marciano Art Foundation similarly laid off the entire visitor services staff after they announced plans to unionize, as did the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. Anti-union initiatives like the fearmongering and misinformation encountered by workers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music are commonplace, as is the adoption of hardline stances in contract negotiations.

At the Walters, where Reehill works, the nascent union has also been met with management intractability. The museum has chosen to take issue with the size and composition of the bargaining unit. By declining voluntary recognition, its management is attempting to force a unionization vote to be routed through the NLRB, which would likely divide 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.) As Reehill explained 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 inextricably linked to other departments, be it Visitor Experience, Maintenance or Collections, that separating us can only be seen as a strategic decision. 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

This rarefied world of cultural institutions, despite its aura of sanctity as the caretaker of artistic and historical inheritance, is rife with the same varieties of exploitation that emerge within other corporate hierarchies. Its financing is deeply intertwined with the interests of the highest echelons of obscene wealth and power. 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 increase in labor organizing that is underway in the field has been facilitated by a recognition of the interests that museum workers hold in common, as long-simmering tensions are brought to the fore by the pandemic and by the depredations of austerity.

That the management and executives of cultural institutions reliably oppose unionization is indicative of unions’ potential power to rebalance those interests. Perhaps, in the longer view, we can hope for a world in which sustained collective action is able to transition the curators of priceless cultural treasures from their present state as ersatz charities and corporate enterprises and return them to the status of 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 surge of labor action and solidarity gives reason for hope. The gathering force of the Walters Art Museum union, despite its challenges, has led to noticeable increase in morale, says Reehill.

“I work with dedicated, passionate people who want what’s best for the Walters at the end of the day. It has been a difficult two years, and many of my colleagues have moved onto other jobs. Many of the reasons they did so were the same as the issues we would like to address by forming a union. I would like to see the efforts of my coworkers recognized, fairly compensated, and protected from further burnout and mistreatment.”

It has become abundantly clear that cultural workers nationwide are now mobilizing to assert the same.

Tyler Walicek is a freelance writer and journalist in Portland, Oregon.