On February 4, staff at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) began protesting unfair wages and what they say are “two-tier working conditions” that unfairly privilege upper management at the expense of other employees.

Following unsuccessful negotiations with VAG last week, about 96 percent of the not-for-profit institution’s 200 unionized workers (who have been without a contract since 2017), all members of Local 15 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), began picketing the gallery early Monday morning.

The unionized workers took what is called a “work to rule” job action, which according to BC labor law, means that they will stick to the letter of their contracts without overtime or any added concessions.

The workers are demonstrating against what they say are stagnant contract negotiations and unfair wages for most of the gallery’s staff. “The gallery is asking that we accept wage increases that are below inflation, which puts us further behind,” the union’s bargaining committee wrote in a statement.

The union contends that wages fall well below those of similar galleries in Canada. Against the backdrop of skyrocketing real estate and rent prices in Vancouver, “every year as our wages fail to keep pace with the cost of living, we are forced to live with less, take side employment, or move further away from our neighbourhoods and communities,” the union says.

The VAG said in an email to Hyperallergic that it “very much value[s] its unionized employees and appreciates all their contributions.” And, “to clarify, there has been no roll-back of benefits for its current team members and, in fact in many cases, benefits have been enhanced.”

Gallery workers retorted in a statement posted to Facebook that: “gallery managers are demanding major rollbacks of the most basic rights — things like long-standing scheduling rules, insufficient wage offer, and fair working conditions (two-tiered proposals that roll back rights for new workers).”

The union representing the workers say they are pushing to achieve a fair resolution that would include a roll-back of the two-tier hiring model, in addition to changes to the nine-day fortnight — a scheduling protocol in which gallery staff work two weeks of scheduled hours over the course of nine days, rather than a ten-day work week.

The gallery is proposing an elimination of the nine-day fortnight for new workers, but retaining it for existing employees. “This proposal erodes our working conditions, undermines future generations of Gallery workers, and sets a dangerous precedent for future attempts to undermine our rights,” the union contends.

In a media release published on February 4 by the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres (PAARC), a collective body representing 21 artist-run centres across British Columbia, it calls on “the Vancouver Art Gallery to cease the pursuit of major concessions in worker wages and benefits, to bargain in good faith, and urges the Gallery Business Managers to immediately satisfy the demands of CUPE 15.” The statement goes on to say that the latest offer by gallery management “demonstrates poor leadership and lack of accountability in their decision to hamper efforts towards fair compensation despite large disparities in salaries between management and workers.”

“Based on a 2017 Charitable Information Return on the Canada Revenue Agency’s registry,” the statement adds, “the gallery Director received annual compensation of more than $350,000 [CAD] (~ $264,000 USD), while 202 of 212 staff receive compensation below $80,000 [CAD] (~$60,300 USD) and are being offered insufficient wage increases and a two-tiered system that rolls back rights for new workers.”

Adding to the PAARC’s statement of solidarity, in an article for Canadian Art, Leah Sandals found that since 2013, “the top salary at the Vancouver Art Gallery has increased at at least double the rate of inflation — from the $250,000-to-$299,000 [CAD] (~$189,000–$226,000 USD) range in 2013 to the $350,000+ [CAD] (~$264,000 USD) range in 2017,” based on information from the Canada Revenue Agency website.

Founded in 1931, the VAG is a not-for-profit organization supported by its members, individual donors, corporate funders, foundations, the City of Vancouver, the Province of British Columbia through the British Columbia Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. In the 2017–18 fiscal year, official numbers stated that it welcomed over 600,000 visitors and had “operational revenue of $21.4 million [CAD] (~$16.5 million USD),” which it said “surpassed budgeted expectations by $1.4 million [CAD] (~$1.06 million USD)” In January 2019, the Chan Family donated $40 million [CAD] (~$30.2 million USD) to the gallery, the largest ever single donation to a cultural institution in BC’s history, money that is being used to construct a glitzy new Herzog & de Meuron designed 300,000-square-foot building.

According to Johanie Marcoux, director of marketing, communications and public affairs for the VAG, the gallery is assessing on a day-to-day basis whether it will remain open from Wednesday onward. She said the gallery believes its latest proposal to the union is “fair and reasonable for both employees and the gallery, which is an independent, not-for-profit organization,” but that so far negotiations have failed to produce a new collective agreement.

The latest situation at the VAG appears to be part of a growing consortium of art workers protesting the lack of consummate wage increases in some of the world’s most expensive cities. In New York City, for example, workers at the New Museum took steps last month to unionize asking for fair “working conditions, hiring practices, wages, and benefits.”

Workers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) — which is unionized under MoMA Local 2110 — underwent bitter negotiations last year over concerns ranging from medical costs to wage increases and job security, which eventually yielded concessions on most issues and a new five-year contract, ratified by a 96% margin.

Meanwhile, at the demonstration outside the VAG on Monday morning, protesters held up signs that said: “Modern Art, Ancient Wages,” referencing one of the most popular slogans from labor demonstrations organized at MoMA last year. Other signs read: “Shabby wages they must cease! Or we won’t hang the Matisse.” While another sign, with a rendering of Munch’s central figure in The Scream (1893), read: “Screaming for fair wages!”

With an expansive new building project and over 600,000 annual visitors to host, it remains to be seen what the outcome of these latest demonstrations will be for the VAG moving forward. The current status—according to both gallery management and the union representing the workers—is that a new proposal for a collective agreement is being scheduled by the BC Labour Relations Board, which has yet to confirm a date and time for the vote to take place.

Update, 2/11/19, 12:30 pm: The Vancouver Art Gallery has informed Hyperallergic that:

the Gallery and CUPE 15 have reached a tentative agreement at the bargaining table. The Memorandum of Agreement reached today with the assistance of a mediator is subject to ratification.

This means that all unionized employees would return to work upon a positive ratification vote. The vote is set for Monday, February 11.  Details of the agreement will be made available after the tentative contract is ratified.

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Dorian Batycka

Dorian Batycka is an independent curator, art critic, and DJ currently based Berlin. Previously, he was curator of contemporary art at Bait Muzna for Art Film (Muscat, Oman), assistant curator for the...