DISPATCHES FROM THE UNIONS
#1 NYC Museum Workers Organizing Committee
NYC Museum Workers is a by-and-for museum and cultural workers advocacy group. In late 2018 and throughout 2019, museum workers around New York City asserted their rights and demanded fair, equitable, and ethical practices from their institutions—raising labor issues around race and working conditions, as well as questioning existing museum governance practices. A lot of action and talking was taking place within individual museums, but there was not much cross-museum communication. On May Day 2019, NYC Museum Workers co-organizers Megan Elevado and Antonio Serna began hosting the ‘Museum Workers Happy Hour’ for workers to meet and discuss work-place activities. Since then the group has evolved and is now led by an Organizing Committee, which works more intentionally to advocate, organize and take action on issues concerning museum and cultural workers, as well as continue the tradition of hosting happy hour events.
The bulk of art teaching is done by underpaid freelancers.
My perspective comes from being a working and teaching artist in NYC for the past eleven years. I am not part of an union, because there is no union for me to belong to. As an independent artist, I get work by doing commissions, showing in nonprofit galleries or museums, speaking on panels, and selling my work directly to buyers or through nonprofit galleries. Exhibiting in nonprofit galleries means that an artist has to cover her costs upfront, for making work- or fundraise and get grants to make it. It also means the gallery takes a percentage of your sale, which is anywhere between 20-50%. In the past few years, artists have been organizing to standardize exhibition fees, so being in a group show organized by a nonprofit might mean you can get paid $150-500 for exhibiting (the standard in my experience is $150-200). In NY, we are constantly being bombarded by professional development “opportunities” in the form of paid workshops, by the city’s largest nonprofits with billion dollar budgets, to help us turn our art into a business. The emphasis is on entrepreneurship.
I find this to be only half the picture. The other half involves artists organizing to demand more from the organizations that claim to support and employ us and from the government at city/state/federal levels. This is key, since the number of artists who can support themselves fully as artist-entrepreneurs is tiny. We are artworkers outside of our studios too. In my case, I made my living by teaching part-time in public schools across the city, prior to COVID. I loved this job, yet had very little say in how my work was structured, as I was hired by art education nonprofits who contract with the schools. At the beginning of COVID, both my jobs were terminated overnight. A year and a half later, arts programming in the schools is still on hold despite school districts scrambling to deliver most other programs online. Arts education is not a priority- and neither are the artists who work in this sector- despite millions being pumped into the schools for aid. We have no collective voice to fight for our jobs or wages. Now, as I reenter the market, I find these jobs hiring at half of what my wage was before the pandemic. Job postings fail to list rates or work schedules, despite providing a 30-point list of qualifications. Almost every organization I have interviewed with hires artists as freelance contractors, rather than part-time workers. Freelancers will not be eligible for unemployment benefits if work is again terminated (as another shutdown looms over us). The bulk of this teaching artist work in NYC is done by women of color.
No one can advocate alone. The arts have long been underpaid and underrepresented and the past two years have brought these inequities into sharp focus. We urgently need a collective voice and vision to unite freelancers, pt and ft workers across the city.
Museum Workers Happy Hours expressed concerns amplified during the pandemic.
I attended top tier private art institutions in the United States, however higher education degrees came at a costly price. Student loans were necessary for me to graduate, and they tallied up at a price of well over $200,000. In NYC, I’ve worked in an art collective, Occupy Museums. We produced a project called DebtFair, which focused on artists’ relationship to debt and how it affects the production of art. There were iterations in Texas, New Mexico and the largest undertaking was an installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. In 2018, I gave a TEDx Talk titled: Empowering Artists Through Inequities in the Art World.
Before moving to New York City, I taught college level art classes part time for nine years. I’m presently employed at a prominent Manhattan museum. I jumped around museum jobs working within the departments of retail, security and custodial. For the past seven years I have worked installing and transporting artworks as a technician. My job is positioned inside a union. This can be fortunate when unfair treatment and disputes come up as there are procedural protocols that are followed related to negotiated agreements of wages, pay raises and other benefits.
Before the pandemic, I attended two Museum Workers Happy Hour events that were in-person “happy hour” meetings within a bar. There were presentations and afterwards everyone mingled discussing their personal situations working within cultural institutions. The museum workers who attended these events were extremely varied as related to the number of hours they work, the places of employment, and their experience within their jobs. There were concerns that were brought up including wages, job security, conditions and treatment at the workplace. Several months later, I attended two virtual Zoom meetings. These interactions sparked sufficient interest in increasing my involvement with the Museum Workers Happy Hour group. The pandemic amplified many art workers' concerns as there were workers who had hours cut, were fired, or laid off. These actions took place at every cultural institution in New York City in some form or another.
More recently, as changes are being made related to the reopening of cultural institutions, I wanted to contribute by being a part of the Museum Workers Organizing Committee. As new changes are being enacted at the city, state and federal level, we are poised to distill our group's concerns and reach out to our city representatives. In 2021, we had two virtual Museum Workers Happy Hour and Strategy Hour listening sessions where the key elements brought up were the re-opening of cultural institutions, covid, pandemic preparedness, lay-offs, wages and rental assistance. We then crafted a shared Google doc (Museum Worker and Community Advocacy Grid) that we honed and edited in preparation of a meeting with a representative of New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Afterwards, a video conference was held with a few leaders of other relevant arts groups within NYC, which proved crucial in shaping an introductory letter and outline for the August 18th meeting with NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.
The most difficult part is facilitating the participation of other arts workers in the struggle.
Distilled in a letter to the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs  are five categories of concern for museum workers and artists in New York: I. Diversity/Equity/Inclusion; II Pandemic Preparedness, Unemployment; III. Financial Ethics and Conduct; IV. Self-Determination and Rights ; The expanded list was presented to the commissioner mid-August via a Zoom conference, it is by no means an exhaustive list . The list might better be defined as an ongoing and growing list of arts workers' concerns that were formally and informally gathered over the course of two years by past and present members of our group, beginning in 2019. At that point, we were hosting in-person celebratory museum worker happy hour events, where museum and cultural institution workers would gather to celebrate recent unionization victories and to meet and hear how other workers are dealing with issues in the halls of the museums and cultural institutions of New York .
The following spring, the world was flipped upside down. I distinctly remember the day my cultural institution went on lock down- it was March 13th, a Friday nonetheless. Soon after, NYC museums started laying off workers, and after several months of holding our breath waiting for our own institutions to lay us off, we eventually resumed our happy hour events online. The happy hour eventually turned into advice, mutual aid, and supporting hours, workers sharing and updating each other on their work situation or lack thereof.
Now, after months of internal sessions, we synthesized our notes and also invited other activist groups and scheduled a meeting with the Commissioner. That meeting would be the first step in a series of dialogues with municipal employees to ring in the dire situation for arts workers. While it takes a good degree of organizing, strategy, and timing, it also requires courage to vocalize these concerns as they are happening to me and many arts workers.
In my previous work with the People’s Cultural Plan , I became familiar with the city’s cultural budget, one of the largest municipal cultural budgets in America, larger than the federal budget on the arts . In addition to this financial relationship, there was a special agreement between city and cultural institutions, an agreement that was over 150 years old, which stated that museums would provide the culture and we would provide support. ‘On which terms’ was up for debate today in our meeting with the commissioner.
Having been working at the intersection of art and labor for the past 10 years, I have to say the most difficult part is facilitating the participation of other arts workers in the struggle. Unlike formal unions, which take on the bulk of the tedious tasks of improving the workplace and lives of union members, advocacy groups like ours require a lot of donated time and labor. Considering museum workers are the lowest paid in the cultural sector  it can be difficult to recruit other workers to join and help move things along. But having made the most difficult step of synthesizing workers' concerns and setting up this and future meetings with the Department of Cultural Affairs, I think we are in a good position to bring in other workers and have their voices heard in order to affect change in cultural institutions from the bottom up.
To collaborate in order to create a more equilibrate cultural sphere.
The Whitney Museum protests in 2019 kicked off my activism in museums. I attended the ten weeks of art and action organized by Decolonize This Place and other collectives as an act of solidarity to be a responsible viewer as I was doing research on the biennial. How can you enjoy museums when workers are so discontent with their working conditions and where institutional funding comes from?
I currently work in a union-backed field (higher education) in administration, as well as an independent researcher, and have recently started graduate school to eventually work in the museum world. I have worked previously as an art educator and as an intern while completing my undergraduate education. It is important for me, as an independent arts professional and aspirational museum worker, to collaborate with current and future museums and culture workers as an active accomplice in this work to create a more equitable cultural sphere.
The NYC Museum Workers started as happy hours which I attended to network with cultural workers and get more involved with other people as much of the work I do is very siloed and isolated. A call was put forth for organizing committee members, and having just been accepted into graduate school, I thought it was an excellent time to get involved, and not only bring my independent, but student perspective to the conversation.
Unionization is trending in museum culture right now, which is great. However, there are limitations to union organizing, and often two more unions can cohabitate in a building, and may not necessarily collaborate in unified struggles still leaving museum workers as a collective whole striated. For example, museum staff being a different union than public safety units or buildings and grounds crews. We are working to try and join these perspectives so that all workers can enjoy the dignity that comes with fair wages, reasonable scheduling, as well as any quality of life benefits. The majority of museum work is subcontracted out, for such positions as museum educators, or independent design houses for particular projects, it's important that these integral roles are also able to work not only in solidarity but for their own needs as well.
To really affect the greatest amount of change we need worker power to be as encompassing as the pervasive forces which profit off our labor. NYC Museum Workers hosted listening sessions to prepare to meet with New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) to establish a working relationship with their office, on behalf of workers to figure out how we can best systematically assist workers across the field. We are creating a dialogue between the commissioner of the DCLA to explore new opportunities to best serve the needs for all types of arts and culture workers.
The tendency to unionize in the cultural/art field has seen a strong momentum in the last few years, due to an increasing sense of awareness around labour exploitation and the disenchantment with the precepts of individualism. Ignited by competition, precarity, underpayment and unrewarding working contracts, workers from all around the world now negotiate their position in the labour system, guided and shielded by the promise of collective betterment.
Dispatches from the Unions, a bi-monthly column in Arts of the Working Class, will amplify the experiences of workers who embrace the commons as a tool for preservation and advocating for their rights. Mapping their conditions and their goals worldwide, the dispatches will serve both as a wish-landscape for dreams of coalitions and as an anthology of labour achievements to which we can refer in the spirit of assembling a common front for a more dignified life.Together we, the many.