Art museum professionals are breaking free of the “passion-as-payment” mentality facing many workers in the United States. In the past six months, staff members of two different modern and contemporary art museums have unionized to protest working conditions for full-time and part-time employees. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) has clashed with museum personnel in the past, but the latest bout came in the Summer of 2018.
The staff mobilized to secure long term contracts, higher pay, and better benefits. Last week, 75 employees of the New Museum, faced with similar issues of injustice in the workplace, came together to submit their application to unionize. The high expectations museums have of their professionals require both in-the-field experience and a high level of education in art history or museum studies. Entering the museum or art world workforce is plagued with exclusion due to low wages and unpaid internships. In taking a stand through union efforts, museum employees can raise awareness of unfair working conditions in public spaces created for cultural enrichment.
Expectations of many museums and arts organizations are that potential workers pay their dues at the beginning of their career by working for little to no pay. My first museum job was a contract position with no particular job security. The museum promoted me to a salaried position within a year, but many professionals in the field are not so lucky.
Recent surveys from the American Association of Museums (AAM) found that 54% of museums polled had full-time unpaid internships. Although there are forward-thinking groups that support museum diversity and offer career support, such as Museum Workers Speak, AAM found that 92% of museums reported that no part of their workforce was unionized.
According to Athena Christa, an engaged member of MoMA’s union efforts, “Arts workers are often expected to make personal and financial sacrifices for the honor of working in a prestigious arts institution. It’s true that we are privileged to have the opportunity to do work we are passionate about, but that often comes with a price paid in under-compensated (and sometimes uncompensated) labor.”
The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a history of staff activism. In May of 1972, the professional and administrative staff association of the MoMA carried out a strike to obtain what they considered to be a fair contract. Almost 50 years later, the staff at the art institution organized under the UAW union seeking job security, adequate pay, and increased coverage of health benefits.
The UAW (Local 2110), supports 30 contracts and over 3000 workers in universities, publishing, museums, law firms, and other offices. During the 122 days of bargaining, MoMA professionals challenged the institution through negotiation, picketing, and a group walkout. On August 16, the union secured better contracts for MoMA staff that included 5-year-contracts, improved health benefits, salary raises, and chances for upward mobility.