This title feels like a throwback to the earliest days of Museum Drip when I came here to spit pure acrimony. I don’t feel the need to weigh in specifically on the ins and outs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union’s strike and success – it’s been covered extensively and if you follow me on Instagram you know how I feel about unions in general.
The union and labor movement in the museum sector are one piece of the puzzle of creating real steps towards diversity and inclusion that include eradicating unpaid internships, making salary transparency standard, and being intentional about where and how recruiting happens. In our post-pandemic (post the arrival of the pandemic shall we say) and post-George Floyd society, there’s a sense that these conversations are new or happening for the first time. However, note the date of that article about unpaid internships + know that this is a strategy to undermine those fighting for equity in the museum world.
Most of us aren’t planning to be millionaires. We knew going into these fields that we would make less money than someone in the for-profit space. All this to just set the stage and say, people aren’t going into these professions uninformed. There are some very smart cookies who might not come from privileged backgrounds, but decide they want to have it both ways and strategically earn those high salaried positions on their actual own merits because they refuse to settle for low wages, and we love that.
On the other hand, there are privileged people who get the right internships, graduate from the right schools, have friends (their parents’ friends) in high places and walk into high-paying positions and find themselves in director-level positions in museums that pay a quarter of a million dollars and more. This has plagued the field since its inception. One of my beloved docents at my first museum job shared this article in the docent Facebook group while I worked there, which felt…weird. We had had a ton of turnover and I think she was looking to rationalize why everyone was leaving the museum. But how embarrassing for your volunteers to pity you because they know your job doesn’t actually pay you enough to afford to live? It has been by design, not accidental or subconscious, that a certain elechon have been the preferred candidates for museum work because there’s the consideration to hire people who will “mix well with the Trustees.”
..key segments of the art market are built upon the spending habits, philanthropy, and social networks of the ultra-wealthy, a feature of the commercial art world that appears to immunize it against this workforce trend. Thanks to its structural dependence on a small group of high-net-worth collectors and donors, hiring in some quarters of art world tends to favor those with the right connections and similar frames of reference.https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-rich-kids-afford-work-art-world
This dynamic was never lost on people who work in museums. From a NY Times article earlier this year: “Museum workers realized that the human resource policies in terms of pay and benefits were oftentimes byzantine,” said Tom Juravich, a professor who researches labor movements at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They realized that they were being treated more like servants to the elite.” While the conversations aren’t new, the amount of people who have easy access to being a part of them has. Social media is bad for a lot of things, but even just seven or eight years ago when I entered the field, Instagram was still just photos on the grid (and we still used filters). The immediate connection we now have access to through Twitter, Instagram and TikTok has allowed those organizations and grass-roots efforts listed by Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwall to quickly amass more devotees. What do they say in Newsies? When you got a hundred voices singing, who can hear a lousy whistle blow. And there are a lot more than a hundred followers to talk to on the internet.
I’ve talked before here about the book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, and how essential it is to understanding the foundations on which we are trying to build equity and inclusion; spoiler, the foundations of our country are not for building on. Last year, Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How we can Prosper Together also earned a spot on that essential reading list. In Chapter 5, “No One Fights Alone,” McGhee details the fight for unionizing at a Nissan plant in Mississippi and the Fight For $15. Unions can have a dark side, like anything – police unions being the most glaring example – but banding together puts the power in the hands of the workers. For the sake of your brains and eyeballs I won’t attempt to rehash the chapter or book here but – get it. And read other sources on how “zero-sum” thinking has rendered unions and labor movements less successful than they should be in America.
There’s only a select pool of museum people that historically have put up with “sticking it out” through incredibly low-paying entry-level jobs. Naiomy Guerrero, as quoted in the Artsy article, says “I grew up poor, and I never want to be poor again,” she says, even if “that means not working in the art world because there isn’t a stable enough position.” One of the biggest issues in the museum field, that unions and the Fight for $15 works to alleviate, is the monumental gap between pay in different departments and positions. While entry-level positions still have the audacity to pay in the $30,000-low $40,000s, a chief curator might make $150,000 a year at an institution that pays the front line staff minimum wage. This stratification has several negative impacts, including burning out and disillusioning even those who manage to “stick it out,” perpetuating the “pay your dues” mindset that poisons creative work. Not to mention resentment between the stratified levels. None of this is new and there are lots of folks fighting hard to do something about it.
I repeat the issues because it’s easy to be mad about them and hard to do something about it. Unionizing is BRAVE. Regardless of all 800 words I’ve already written, it still feels whiny and incredibly vulnerable to advocate that you deserve more money after you’ve been devalued for years. I remember seeing a New England Museums Association salary survey from maybe 2015 while I was working at my last job, desperate to move out of my studio apartment into a place with some outdoor space, and thinking that I would never make more money than I was, because there was no precedent represented that would justify asking for a raise. In fact, I was told literally, with no coded language or attempts at niceties, to “take it or leave it.” I wasn’t in a place in my life where “leaving it” was an option. It was easy to justify why it wasn’t “that bad” and why I shouldn’t quit: I liked what I did. My parents lived close to my job and would feed me and letting me do laundry. I had a safe little apartment that I could afford on my $32,000 salary alone. I’m privileged enough to have made it work. (This was 2016, for context, and I lived in an expensive state.)
However, I usually reached 40 hours by the time I left on Thursdays, and before I was salaried (and bumped up to $40,000), I was not allowed to accurately reflect my hours on my time card because there was no overtime allowed. I was in charge of so many things for the amount of money I was making, although eventually when I started to point that out, my supervisors tried to pull back on all the responsibilities I have been overseeing in order to more efficiently shut down my arguments for better pay. In such a toxic environment, would making more money have made a difference? I think so, and this is what people are unionizing for. As my friend very perfectly this week, when you’re making just barely a living wage, “you don’t make enough money to do self-care.” In How to Not Quit Your Job, we acknowledge that sometimes your job isn’t making you happy but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. I talk a lot in that post and on my Instagram about being a whole person, about hobbies, and about not being defined by your job. Picture this – you already have to say no to a lot of invites because you work a lot of weekends, and then when you aren’t at work, you don’t feel like you can make plans with your friends because you can’t afford to “do” anything. I used to panic slightly every time my coworker would suggest we get takeout for lunch or dinner at work. The first time I went to therapy, (when I could finally afford it) my counselor asked me what my hobbies were and what I did for fun, and I realized that I was afraid of hobbies because they cost money. It’s that thing – having money isn’t everything, not having it is. Plus, in addition to having that breathing room to fill up your cup when you can, money helps you gain a little more space in your days as well. Meal kits and takeout. Savings in the bank, maybe even a house cleaner.
Reflecting on it now, it feels like an abusive relationship. I’m victim blaming myself. “Why didn’t you leave? If it was so bad, you could have found another job. Were your dreams really worth that much to you?” A complicated piece of the puzzle, that we talk about all the time, is how much society seems to value museums. It’s impossible to complain or lament about what’s unfair about your job when everyone you meet says, “that must be so fun!” or “I love museums!” or “you’re so lucky to have landed a job in your field!” And the thing is, those things are not untrue. Museums ARE great and it IS GREAT to find work that you chose. But the cognitive dissonance created by meeting people who value the outcome of what you do, but not the actual work you do (because it’s “fun”) is challenging.
It’s hard, especially now that I do make a comfortable salary and am married, with another person to worry about, to picture myself joining a picket line. I’m scared to lose what I have. But our focus on the individual over the collective isn’t doing it for our society, and collective bargaining is exactly what we need to break those vicious cycles, to start taking care of one another and making things better for everyone in the process. I’m so impressed by all the museum folks that have stepped up and unionized in the last several years. They’ve laid the blueprint and I’m more than ready to see it reverberate through our whole field. One for all and all for one.