‘We are in crisis mode’: Museum workers are turning to unions over conditions they say are untenable

By Mark Guarino

November 4, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

CHICAGO — Artists are usually the ones associated with suffering for their art. But these days, the pain applies to industry workers, too.

Art museums nationwide are undergoing a wave of unionization efforts to confront conditions that workers — from archivists and curators to those selling T-shirts — say are untenable: minimal wage increases, draining resources, lack of transparency from top administrators, and mass layoffs and furloughs resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are in crisis mode,” said Eala O’Se, one of the majority of workers at the Art Institute of Chicago and its school who signed cards in September announcing a new union associated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The workers held a rally in front of the museum the day of the announcement.

On Tuesday, employees of the museum and the School of the Art Institute filed representation petitions with the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago. The filing will trigger an election in the coming weeks in which employees can vote to officially form their union — Art Institute of Chicago Workers United.

“When the pandemic began, it became very clear the priority was nowhere near about protecting staff and giving us a living wage to survive,” O’Se added.

According to the Union Membership and Coverage Database, which tracks labor activity, about 13 percent of museums were unionized in 2020, the highest level since 2013. Just over the past year, unions have formed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City; the Frye Art Museum in Seattle; the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Museum of Tolerance and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass.; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Most museum employees at a single institution work in the cafe or gift shop, on the maintenance staff, at the front desk, or as administrative aides or in support roles. Advocates say they, too, often receive low wages and face declining resources and harsh disciplinary action because of a long-standing belief that arts jobs are prestigious and rare, and that having one is a luxury, no matter the cost.

The employees who are most likely to “sacrifice more” under those conditions are recent college graduates eager to break into arts administration or who are hungry to make connections because they are artists themselves, said Alan Salzenstein, director of the performing arts management program at DePaul University in Chicago.

“These are the workers who often balance the realities of paying their rent with their career choice. That’s a sad commentary for many arts organizations,” he said.

As in the corporate world, the gap in pay between workers on the lower rungs of museums and upper management is widening at a rate that is “quite extraordinary,” Salzenstein said, which does not bode well for grooming future arts leaders from within the ranks.

“There is a concern out there — how does the industry try to balance wages so there is room for people in entry-level positions who can grow with greater responsibilities and into upper management?” he said.

That problem is especially prescient at art museums where only those who are connected or wealthy tend to be able to tolerate low wages, said Dana Kopel, a former New Museum employee who helped lead a successful union effort there last year. Trying to break into museums while saddled with student loan debt can make it impossible, especially in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, where the cost of living is excessive.

“The contemporary art world is extremely exclusionary, even though it talks about wanting to be the opposite,” Kopel said. “Despite representational gestures, there’s not structural change or a redistribution of money. That’s not something people want to do, but that is what will make things a little more equitable in the art world. Just paying people more won’t end centuries of anti-Blackness, but it will make it easier for people of color to get jobs in museums.”

The coronavirus compounded the stressors of past years. According to a report by the American Alliance of Museums in April, museums in the United States locked their doors to the public for an average of 28 weeks starting in March 2020 because of the pandemic; nearly 30 percent remain shuttered today. Lost revenue from the forced closures hit the bottom line hard: Three-quarters of all museums surveyed said their income fell an average of 40 percent last year.

Staff members bore the brunt of the fallout. Sixty-one percent of the same museums surveyed announced layoffs or furloughs. Others slashed pay, hours and benefits. A third of museums said they don’t plan to rehire now that indoor restrictions have loosened.

The Art Institute of Chicago closed in March 2020 but reopened by late July of that year. Kati Murphy, the museum’s executive director of public affairs, said revenue fell 30 percent compared with the fiscal year before the pandemic. Eight percent, or 51 people, were laid off in June 2020. In December, the institute furloughed 109 employees. At the School of the Art Institute, 65 full-time staff members were laid off, along with 38 part-timers and contractors.

The layoffs “affected individuals in nearly all departments and at all levels of seniority,” Murphy said, adding that they were decisions “made to protect our core mission and critical functions.” (Murphy declined to be interviewed by phone and would respond only via email.)

With earned income shrinking, some of the biggest museums had the luxury of leaning harder on the private sector, namely wealthy donors who hold board seats or philanthropists who have shown consistent support over many years. Even before the pandemic, the second-largest revenue source for the cultural sector outside the public was private donors, totaling nearly 30 percent, according to data from IBISWorld. Murphy did not reveal numbers at the museum but said that Chicago’s philanthropic community “remained generous through this difficult time, mitigating the financial impact of the pandemic.”

Last year, James Rondeau, the museum’s president and director, told the Chicago Tribune that the endowment would never be used for circumstances such as pandemic-related shortfalls resulting from restrictions. “Endowments are about sustainability, about the future, about potentiality. They’re a long-term stabilizer. They’re not a short-term solution,” he said.

The portion of the nearly $1.1­ billion endowment the school did redirect toward staff salaries during the pandemic was taken from what is normally used for general operations each year and was not in addition to that funding, Murphy said.

Those in the museum labor movement say there is a disconnect between top administrators and those struggling to keep the doors open. A common refrain among workers during the pandemic is that they are now being asked to do more with less. Survey data from AFSCME Cultural Workers United shows that burnout is high and that mental health is worsening among museum workers who remain on staff. Half say an increased workload is to blame. Money is not trickling down either: Forty percent of full-time employees say cutbacks have led to lost income, while more than 60 percent of part-time workers say they have been affected.

For Robert Burnier, who has been a specialist in European painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago for 15 years, it is a struggle to reconcile the layoffs and cutbacks from an institution with such deep pockets. Even by the beginning of the pandemic, when the museum slashed 25 jobs in April 2020, he said there had been a gradual whittling down of wages and resources for those who make the least.

He said he considers the pandemic “a catalyst” for administrators “to crank down the numbers more.”

“It was a big disappointment for people that this administration saw an opportunity to experiment with people’s titles, jobs and livelihoods” during the pandemic, Burnier said. “It’s one thing to say [workers] won’t be super wealthy, but we’re trying to have a livable situation where we can be comfortable while making the museum thrive.”

Federal pandemic-related loan assistance, totaling $1 billion to museums alone, did not necessarily trickle down to workers.

AFSCME research shows that 20 percent of the largest cultural institutions — those with multimillion-dollar budgets — received 83 percent of Paycheck Protection Program loans through June 2021. These same institutions cut the jobs of more than 14,400 workers, or almost 30 percent of their workforce. (Murphy said the Art Institute of Chicago was not eligible for the loan program.)

As the labor movement widens its footprint in museums, the public may notice it only at the box office, where they could pay more for admission and services. That, in turn, will mean they will demand more from the experiences, said Salzenstein, of DePaul University.

Precedents are found in the classical music world, Broadway theater companies and dance organizations where unionization has been a way to operate for decades.

“There is a perception of a certain quality level when an organization is unionized. This speaks more toward the psychology of being a patron of the arts,” Salzenstein said. “Many times, patrons don’t mind paying more if they feel they are receiving a better product.”

In Chicago, Murphy said, “the financial impact of unionization will not be fully understood” until both sides negotiate a contract, which could be years away.

But both the museum and the school said recently that they would not yet recognize the union, and the election will require time and money on both sides.

Murphy said the decision was to respect the minority of workers who haven’t made up their minds or chose not to sign.

“Forgoing an election where everyone can have their individual voices heard is not in keeping with our values,” she said.

Share this story on your favorite platform: