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.
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