Union campaign buttons distributed by artist Jessalyn Aaland during a Public Square event at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Art (YBCA) in 2018 (courtesy the artist)

New York’s Jewish Museum staff are the latest to join a wave of unionization drives in art institutions across the country. Yesterday, January 10, they filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) via representatives of Local 2110 UAW. The union would include art handlers, curators, development staff, educators, visitor experience and retail employees, and other administrative staff.

The workers cite job insecurity, wage inequities, working conditions, and their demand for more transparent employment policies as among the reasons for organizing a union. They seek to join Local 2110 UAW, which represents workers at the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Shed, and several other cultural institutions across New York and New England.

“Our goal is to create a workplace built upon communication, respect, and integrity, where staff are involved in setting the terms of employment and are allowed to sustainably grow their careers,” the workers wrote in a union mission statement. “In keeping with our love of the Jewish Museum’s exhibitions, collection, and rich history, the staff is eager to realize a fairer, more inclusive, and more diverse workplace.”

Lawrence Weiner’s “ALL THE STARS IN THE SKY HAVE THE SAME FACE” (2011/2020) at the Jewish Museum in New York (photo by Liz Ligon, courtesy the Jewish Museum)

A spokesperson for the Jewish Museum told Hyperallergic in an email: “The Jewish Museum is aware that staff have petitioned for a union election. The Museum greatly values its staff and will respectfully engage in any process that transpires.”

The groundswell of collective bargaining marking recent years was enhanced by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which brought mass layoff and furloughs of museum workers. Most affected were low-tier workers in public-facing positions like visitor services, education, and retail, whereas the roles of top officials remained relatively unscathed. This uneven outcome was another reminder of the chronic inequities plaguing American museums.

“Unionization has become a necessity for museum staff,” said Rebecca Shaykin, an associate curator who has worked at the Jewish Museum for over 11 years, in a statement to Hyperallergic. “As museum professionals, we’re expected to work long hours for low wages with little assurance of promotional opportunities. By forming a union, we can join together for conditions that recognize our value as a staff.”

In 2019, a group of Bay Area artists released the first volume of Organizing Power, a series of risograph-printed booklets presenting a lucid, comprehensive guide to the complex process of organizing a museum union. The booklets helped workers launch union drives at institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In an interview with Hyperallergic in October of 2021, Jessalyn Aaland, an artist and a former worker at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) who spearheaded the series, said that the pandemic was “the match lighting the tinder that’s been building up for years.”

“For a long time museum and cultural workers have been dealing with pay disparities, struggling to survive in this economy like so many other workers, and dealing with the overwork resulting from underfunded nonprofits (and in many cases, bloated expansions that do nothing to alleviate workload or value workers through salary increases),” said Aaland. “The difficulty of the pandemic has lit a fire under a lot of people, and a determination to improve things. Workers have had it and have decided to do something about it.” 

“The impetus to organize came from our commitment to our work,” explained Shaykin. “With a union, we can address real workplace issues and concerns. We want to preserve what we love about working at the museum, but make sure that as staff, we have a voice in our workplace and are part of the future of the Jewish Museum.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...