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Guards at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Protest Changes They Fear Could Endanger Collection

Members of MISU, along with Industrial Workers of the World members and the Solidarity Band, have protested outside the MFA for the past three weekends. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Members of MISU, along with Industrial Workers of the World members and the Solidarity Band, have protested outside the MFA for the past three weekends. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BOSTON — Last weekend, gallery guards of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) were standing outside the institution’s main entrance on Huntington Avenue holding signs, passing out leaflets, and singing as part of their ongoing protest. The guards, united under the Museum Independent Security Union (MISU), have been protesting for three weeks against the MFA’s new scheduling and training regimen for the guards.

The MISU protests were held on the street in front of the main entrance of the MFA Boston on Huntington Avenue.
The MISU protests were held on the street in front of the main entrance of the MFA Boston on Huntington Avenue.

The MISU contract with the museum ran out on June 30, 2015, and has been extended until March 31, 2016, or until a successor contract is negotiated, whichever comes first. Under discussion are reductions of flexible scheduling and of guard coverage in the galleries. But, according to MISU president Evan Henderson, these changes are pushing guards out of their positions. Under the MFA’s new guidelines gallery guards’ work would reportedly be less focused on providing artwork protection and guest support within the galleries, and require them to cover shifts in areas of the museum like the attic, offices, or outdoors, which are normally the purview of other staff.

The MISU protestors noted the pride they felt in protecting the artwork while helping guide patrons and answer questions, and felt the new roles are altering their job description. “It’s not the job we were hired to do,” says Henderson. Many protesters were concerned that they were losing the ability to aid museum visitors and provide a friendly atmosphere at the MFA. The other major issue is the timing of the shifts, traditionally set up to allow guards to hold second jobs or work around other commitments like school or childcare. The museum has switched to a set schedule that clashes with the commitments of many longtime guards. “People with families are affected, part-time workers are greatly affected,” says Henderson. “You cannot possibly take classes and do these schedules that they’re throwing at us. You can’t work another job. It’s nearly impossible.”

Henderson explains that many of the staff have school-age children or work multiple jobs to make ends meet. “There are longtime working families who have been here for 10, 20, 30, 40 — we have someone who’s worked here for 50 years,” he says. The contract negotiations have left Henderson with the impression that the museum’s business concerns are trumping its previously supportive attitude, forcing employees to leave before a new contract can be agreed upon.

More of the gallery guard came out to join the protests on their break, including Lakia Prince (center), who was working her last shift. She was forced by the schedule changes to give up her position, which she's held since 2007.
More of the gallery guard came out to join the protests on their break, including Lakia Prince (center), who was working her last shift. She was forced by the schedule changes to give up her position, which she’s held since 2007.

Guards aren’t allowed to strike, but some come out to join the protests to hold signs and pass out fliers during their breaks. One of them, Lakia Prince, has been a gallery guard at the MFA since 2007. She came out to protest Saturday afternoon during her final shift at the museum, because she’s unable to maintain her new schedule alongside her other job. The change of hours has resulted in a loss of hours and consequently a loss of the benefits that made working two jobs tenable. “If I do change my hours, and work on the weekend, I will lose all my benefits, which include the sick time, the vacation time, the discounts on the [monthly public transit] pass, all the reasons why I stayed,” Prince says. Even so, she was out chanting and handing out leaflets to people passing by the protest, hoping for a better resolution.

A sign from the MISU protest
A sign from the MISU protest (click to enlarge)

MISU also claims that the Protective Services department implemented a hiring freeze last year, leaving the galleries understaffed. The museum employs a total of fewer than 100 guards, more than half of whom are gallery guards, covering the museum’s 616,937 square feet. The MFA has denied that a hiring freeze is in place and noted they it was unaware any guards had quit due to the new scheduling changes. The Director of Protective Services, Nicki Luongo, declined to be interviewed due to the ongoing negotiations, but Karen Frascona, the MFA’s public relations director, confirmed that negotiations with MISU are taking place. She noted that changes being implemented in January are within the previous contracts’ purview. “In making these changes, we will continue to be mindful of the needs and welfare of our staff,” Frascona says.

The MFA shared the following statement outlining its intentions:

The Museum has put several proposals on the table that will provide members with pay increases, a bonus, and training that address areas such as emergency preparedness, conflict resolution, and security operations […] we are not contemplating a reduction in the number of guards, will maintain guard coverage in the galleries, and will continue to offer day, evening, and overnight shifts.

The statement notes that the museum has always used a combination of staff and technology, and aimed to increase the preparedness of the guard force to better serve museumgoers.

Aside from the concerns over scheduling, a smaller guard force means fewer guards on the floor to guide museumgoers and to protect the artwork, duties in which the gallery guards take great pride. Multiple protesting guards expressed concern over the protection of the art, noting that a camera-heavy security force cannot prevent people from getting too close. MISU president Henderson notes that in his time as a guard since 2012, he has seen museumgoers attempt to touch artworks on a regular basis. “I’ve seen people try to scratch a painting, with a map, with a hard map, and try to scratch the painting,” he says. “Luckily I was there to stop that, but if no one is there, artwork is damaged everyday.”

Protestors stood outside the main entrance of the MFA Boston on Huntington Avenue passing out leaflets, chanting, and singing while engaging museum patrons and other passersby.
Protestors stood outside the main entrance of the MFA Boston on Huntington Avenue passing out leaflets, chanting, and singing while engaging museum patrons and other passersby.

John Storrow, another of the guards protesting on Saturday, has been working at the MFA for 29 years. Schedule changes won’t push him out, but they have caused a host of complications. “My wife will have to put my daughter on the school bus without me being there to help her with that, because my daughter has mild autism” he says. Other guards with children find themselves unable to make school or bus drop-offs and pick-ups for their children. But Storrow is hopeful MISU will make a difference. “I believe we have a very, very strong family community for the guards as our union, and I’m here to support this community,” he says. “And I hope we can convince the museum to treat us like family.”

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