Inside Hushed Museum Hallways, a Rumble Over Pay Grows Louder

The art handlers at the Guggenheim work under some unusual conditions, having to hang paintings slightly askew and tilted to account for the museum’s sloped floors and curved walls.

But this spring, the handlers mounted something never before seen at the Guggenheim: a successful union drive.

With their rarefied spaces and lofty missions, museums and other cultural institutions have not been known as tinderboxes of labor activism. But the fight against income inequality has taken hold in their world, with curators, handlers and designers publicly pressuring executives to raise their wages, and in some cases forming unions.

The workers said they had been inspired by recent union drives at media companies and among graduate students, and their efforts even echo the #MeToo movement in its use of Google Doc crowdsourcing. In one widely shared spreadsheet, arts workers are anonymously posting their job titles and salaries, alongside those of museum officials who in certain cases are making eight times as much as some curators.

“There’s a really endemic feeling in the art world, that’s definitely maintained by the people in charge of institutions, that we’re lucky to have these jobs,” said Dana Kopel, who edits exhibition materials and catalogs at the New Museum and helped organize a successful union drive there.

“But these are jobs,” she added. “And we deserve to have rights as workers.”

She said museum employees around the country had reached out to her for advice. “It really feels like a movement,” she said.

The push coincides with a drive to diversify museum staffs; the low wages have long been seen as an impediment to lower-income applicants, many of whom are minorities. Amid anxiety about who can afford to work in the field at all, the Association of Art Museum Directors recently passed a resolution calling for an end to most unpaid internships.

“Working in a museum can sometimes seem like a service industry for the wealthy,” said Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “Middle people in museums used to think they were part of the top bracket. Now they’re part of the bottom bracket, or at least don’t have anywhere to go.”

“You have this kind of perfect storm,” he added: “stagnated wages, working within an environment of great wealth inequality, job insecurity.”

But one distinction separating this from other economic campaigns of the moment, like the “Fight for $15” federal minimum-wage push, is that most of these employers are nonprofits. While the budgets of arts institutions vary widely, and some have generous support, many are struggling to cover expenses amid declining government and corporate funds and increasing competition from electronic media.

That has created tension between employees and museum leaders, who are generally seen as champions of the arts rather than archetypes of overpaid executives.

“These are liberal, progressive people,” said Howard Z. Robbins, a partner at the prominent law firm Proskauer Rose, who represents the Museum of Modern Art, the Tenement Museum, the New Museum and others. “It’s bizarre they are being demonized as if they’re Henry Clay Frick.”

At the Guggenheim, those who organized included carpenters, multimedia technicians and art handlers like Megan Dyer, who began working there in 1994. Like many museum workers, she is also an artist, and after a while she left the Guggenheim to work for the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

“I came back to the Guggenheim after 17 years,” Ms. Dyer said, “and found my salary to be about the same.”

Meeting on lunch breaks at Eli’s Essentials, an upscale cafe nearby where a peanut butter and jelly sandwich costs $7.95 (most brought their own food), the workers gathered with a labor organizer and signed union cards.

But the union drive was not a sure thing. The art handlers, like other early supporters of the Guggenheim’s organizing effort, are part-time employees. And the speed of the campaign — it took just a couple of months, its timing tied to an exhibition change when most part-timers would be working — felt rushed to some of the full-time employees who work in a different part of the city and were among the last to find out about it.

The Guggenheim tried to capitalize on these divisions.

“I don’t want us to have to work with a third party to negotiate one-size-fits-all arrangements in this unique workplace with its many categories of workers,” Richard Armstrong, the museum’s director, said in prepared remarks that were emailed to the staff on the eve of the vote. “And I do not want to work with a third party who has very limited experience in the museum field, and whose membership is largely in the heating and air-conditioning and construction industries.”

Its employees voted 57-20 at the end of June to join Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which now represents about 140 people at the museum.

The Guggenheim said it could not comment because it would soon be negotiating a contract with the union.

In addition to the Guggenheim and the New Museum, unions have recently been formed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Tenement Museum in Manhattan and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

Joseph Rosa, the director and chief executive of the Frye Museum, said the salary awareness was particularly acute in cities where the cost of living is high. “People are getting squeezed,” he said. “It’s a much bigger issue beyond a nonprofit museum.”

Union drives sometimes coincide with building expansions, when vast sums of money are collected for ambitious new wings designed by celebrity architects, like the New Museum’s current $89 million project by Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA. These expensive and high-profile renovations can irk employees who believe they are underpaid.

In reality, while wealthy donors are generally happy to contribute to construction projects — often drawn by naming opportunities — they are far less excited about subsidizing unsexy operating expenses, like salaries and benefits.

Lisa Phillips, the director of New Museum, said in a statement that the “staff and board are united around our purpose and values and we’ve accomplished so much working together.”

“We will continue to do so as we negotiate our first contract with the union,” she added.

At the annual meeting in May of the American Alliance of Museums, Kimberly Drew, a curator and writer delivering a keynote address, showed a slide of the salaries she has earned in the field, including $30,000 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, $40,000 at the Lehmann Maupin art gallery and $80,000 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was a social media manager.

Salary concerns at museums nationwide were given a viral boost over the last few weeks when a Google spreadsheet of job titles and salary information, race and gender caught fire. Michelle Fisher, a curator in Boston, said she and colleagues in the art world came up with the idea over drinks at the end of May, and she put the spreadsheet together on her way home that night.

The spreadsheet now has nearly 3,000 entries from museums and galleries around the country, with data including: an assistant conservator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with 19 years in the field ($60,000); a collections assistant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with 10 years’ experience ($45,000); and a few curatorial assistants at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan with salaries of $40,000 to $46,000. The positions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia required a master’s degree, according to the spreadsheet, and for the Whitney jobs, a master’s was preferred.

The spreadsheet includes the pay packages of about two dozen museum leaders, based on publicly available tax filings, to highlight what organizers called the “gulf” between executive and staff pay. It shows museum directors making nearly $700,000 at the Philadelphia Museum and more than $1 million at the Whitney, which is in line with what major museums pay.

The staff salaries on the spreadsheet are self-reported, making it difficult to draw conclusions about particular jobs or institutions. The Philadelphia Museum said it “works very hard to ensure that wages and the overall compensation package are competitive.” The Whitney disputed the entry for its curatorial assistants, saying the job pays $50,000 to $55,000, plus overtime.

But there is little question that the spreadsheet has brought attention to the issue of pay. So the group released another spreadsheet last week to document — and protest — unpaid internships.

“The numbers are all over the map, but one thing is really clear and it’s that they’re small,” Ms. Fisher said. “I don’t know if I could counsel somebody now and say, this is a sustainable way to live.”

Elizabeth Harris is a culture reporter. A Times reporter since 2009, she has covered education, retail companies for the business section, real estate and New York politics. @Liz_A_Harris

Robin Pogrebin is a reporter on the Culture Desk, where she covers the art world, architecture, cultural institutions and occasionally theater. She has also worked on the Business Desk, where she covered the media, and on the Metro Desk. @rpogrebin Facebook

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