Frye Art Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

There are staff members at the Frye Art Museum who say they have put off surgery due to unaffordable costs and others who must sleep on the couches of their friends to survive living in Seattle, one of America’s most expensive cities. Motioning for better pay and benefits, security guards at the museum recently elected to form the Art Workers Union (AWU).

“We’re doing this because we care about the Frye and we care about future employees of the Frye,” Caitlin Lee told the Stranger, a Seattle-based publication which first broke the story. “We know we’re not alone. We know that other museum workers are also facing similar hardships and it would be amazing to see other art museums rise up and join with us.”

“A lot of these museums have spent millions of dollars on projects while claiming they don’t have the money to support their most essential staff — the staff that keeps the institutions running on a day-to-day basis,” John Edens, a security services officer at the Frye, told ARTnews. “A lot of museum workers have gotten really tired of the excuse that the place they’re dedicating themselves to simply can’t afford them.”

Security guards at the institution say that most of their staff have college degrees and are artists themselves, yet they make minimum wage with no benefits. Many workers begin making $14 per hour, but they would have to make nearly double that amount, $26 per hour, to afford a studio apartment in Seattle. And although they love the work, many guards are forced to take second jobs to scrape by in a city known for record-high income inequality, rivaling San Francisco.

On May 31, a crowd of demonstrators supporting AWU gathered in front of the Frye Art Museum’s main entrance to call upon its board of directors and CEO Joseph Rosa for voluntary recognition. The gathering included a variety of public officials and political organizations, including councilmember Kshama Sawant, city council candidate Shaun Scott, members of the Democratic Socialists of America, and other union members from around the city.

“It is also not acceptable for the Frye Art Museum, a free museum, that says it is a ‘living legacy of visionary patronage and civic responsibility‘ to pay its talented workers such paltry wages,” Sawant said, according to the Stranger‘s report. “I invite Frye board of directors to practice civic responsibility and start right here today by recognizing the Art Workers Union.”

The museum has released a statement, saying that they were notified the afternoon before the demonstration by “our security staff of their intent to unionize and asked that we review their request with our board. We look forward to beginning a discussion with them to understand their position.”

The AWU joins a growing list of unions that have recently formed as the public scrutinized labor policies and salaries at cultural institutions. Employees at the New Museum, MoMA PS1, SFMOMA, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Tenement Museum, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) are all in different steps of the process toward getting recognition from their employers.

Update 6/7/19 5:22pm: The Frye Art Museum has declined to voluntarily recognize the Art Workers Union, according to a report by ARTnews. In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, the workers said:

When we formed the Art Workers Union, we informed the Frye Art Museum and asked for voluntary recognition. Unfortunately, Frye management has decided to deny our request for direct recognition. Thankfully, the AWU and the Frye have reached an agreement with the NLRB to hold a union election on June 18.

They continued:

Management is free to elaborate their position, but the facts remain crystal clear. Frye Museum Workers continue to struggle making poverty wages with inconsistent hours. If the museum were serious about actually addressing the problems workers have, they would have recognized our union and moved on to bargaining with us so we can fix these issues for the good of everyone involved.

Update 6/7/19 6:00pm: In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, the museum said:

The Museum greatly values its security services team. The Museum is pleased to have reached a mutual agreement with the Art Workers Union to hold a secret-ballot election process on June 18, to be supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. All security services staff will be compensated for their time so that they may participate in this important process, with the full support of Museum management.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...