On Wednesday night, as guests of the Brooklyn Museum arrived for the annual, star-studded Artists Ball, members of the museum’s union gathered—once again—along the entryway, to raise their voices in songs and speeches of protest.
Many brandished signs (“Solidarity with the Union”) and chanted (“overworked and underpaid” and “Brooklyn is a union town”).
In August 2021, some 130 employees of the Brooklyn Museum, including curators, conservators, editors, fundraisers, educators, and members of the visitor services department, voted overwhelmingly to unionize. They affiliated with the Technical, Office, and Professional Union, Local 2110, part of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union which also represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among other cultural institutions across the US.
Contract negotiations between Brooklyn Museum leadership and the union began in January 2022, but eventually stalled on issues of healthcare benefits, job security, and wages. According to a union press release, employees have not received a wage increase since 2020, despite skyrocketing inflation and rent in New York City. They’ve made good progress on issues such as healthcare, however, negotiations have stagnated on economic issues, according to Carmen Hermo, an associate curator of feminist art who has worked at the museum for more than five years.
The union is asking for an across-the-board wage increase of 16.25 percent over a 3.5-year period. Additionally, the union is seeking raises for part-time front of house staff, such as those working in visitor services and retail, and improved hours and job security for all employees.
According to the union, the museum has offered a 3.5-year contract with wage increases across department that would amount to 9 percent by the end of the contract. Local 2110 reports that this is significantly less than unionized workers achieved through contract negotiations at comparable New York institutions, such as the Whitney Museum and the Bronx Museum.
“The Museum is reducing union positions and creating higher paid positions that it refuses to include in our union,” the union wrote. “These are obvious attempts to undercut our bargaining power and weaken our union.” They also accused the museum of “undermining” their “collective bargaining relationship by “committing unfair labor practices.”
In an emailed statement to ARTnews, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Museum wrote: “We respect the rights of our bargained employees to demonstrate safely and remain committed to reaching an agreement as soon as possible.”
By now, the union and their supporters are familiar presences at the museum’s luxe events, having made an appearance most recently at the Thierry Mugler VIP Gala last November. Then, the weather had dipped from cold to frigid, and a heavy rain fell. Last night, clear skies and a crisp spring evening surely contributed to a greater turnout of union supporters. At the peak of its activity, the rising din of demonstrators and honking horns of passersby overtook the chatter of VIPs trickling through the front doors (and side doors, which were quietly opened by the event’s attendants).
The union, however, stressed that any ire was aimed at museum leadership, not the artists attending the ball. And absolutely there was no hard feelings toward the guest of honor, world-renowned photographer Carrie Mae Weems. (The host committee also included artists Mickalene Thomas, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Shirin Neshat, and Kehinde Wiley.)
If anything, union members believed that the artists would appreciate their fight for an equitable workplace. Owen O’Brien, manager of individual giving and campaigns in the museum’s development office, pointed out that Weems had once engaged in the labor movement as a union organizer.
“We hope that this [protest] will open some of the eyes of the artists here,” said O’Brien “Wages are stagnant, and that even though we all love working here, we love art—people are frustrated.”
The union negotiators returned to the table today, with the aim to reach a contract as colleagues at other New York institutions recently have.
“We’ve seen our colleagues at the Whitney and the Bronx Museum achieve good, very fair contracts,” Hermo said. “This is a world-renowned institution; there’s no reason its workers shouldn’t be given the same.”