Workers at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, are the latest to join the nationwide trend of unionization at cultural institutions. Announced last week, Wex Workers United represents workers across the center’s departments who seek to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 8.
On Friday, March 4, about 50 of the Wexner’s 70 full-time workers marched into the organization’s lobby with signs and banners announcing their union. “Wex workers deserve a voice,” they chanted.
During the rally, the workers delivered a letter to Kelly Stevelt, the Wexner’s co-interim executive director, citing pay equity and “working culture” as “long-standing issues” that prompted their union drive. These issues, they said, were further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought along additional health and safety concerns.
“During the early pandemic, staff bore the brunt of furloughs, reduced working hours, and the elimination of six positions,” the letter reads. “Our workloads were not lessened during this time of reduced staff — in fact, many of us took on additional work beyond our job descriptions while receiving little to no compensation for completing these extra duties.”
The workers called on the Wexner to voluntarily recognize their union, writing, “This is the best way for leadership to demonstrate that they are listening to staff and are seriously invested in improving morale and organizational culture.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, the center’s two co-interim executive directors, Stevelt and Megan Cavanaugh, said: “We greatly value our employees and appreciate all they do to support the Wexner Center for the Arts and our mission.”
The co-interim directors also said they are “actively working” with Ohio’s State Employment Relations Board (SERB) to hold a union election at the center, adding: “We support our employees’ right to vote on whether they wish to be represented by a union or not.”
Founded on the campus of Ohio State University in 1989, the arts center is named after the father of retail billionaire Leslie Wexner, the former owner of Victoria’s Secret and a major donor to the institution. Wexner’s reputation was marred by his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in a Manhattan jail in 2019. One of Epstein’s victims, artist Maria Farmer, alleged in an affidavit that she was sexually assaulted by Epstein and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell during their stay together at Wexner’s Ohio estate in the summer of 1996. Wexner was also the owner of Epstein’s seven-story Manhattan townhouse on East 71st Street, where he committed many of his crimes.
In 2019, a representative of Wexner and his wife Abigail told the Washington Post that the couple had condemned Epstein’s “abhorrent behavior in the strongest possible terms” and severed ties with him in 2007. The Wexner Center also pledged to give $336,000 in donations it received from Epstein to help fight human trafficking.
Workers at the center are now awaiting their management’s response to their union drive. Jo Snyder, who works as the learning and public practice programs coordinator at the Wexner and is a member of the new union, said that frontline workers — including retail and visitor services workers and preparators — were most affected by the center’s cost-cutting measures during the pandemic.
“Many of these workers were brought back to work in the late summer of 2020 before a vaccine was even ready,” Snyder told Hyperallergic. “That decision, which concerned many of us, was made top-down.”
Snyder added that while her job was reduced from full-time to 80% employment for a few months during the pandemic, the workload has only increased. “The extra work that a lot of us took on was never compensated for or acknowledged,” she said.
Layla Muchnik-Benali, a curatorial assistant at the center’s film department, described “blockages in communications” between the center’s leadership and workers.
“Part of unionizing means being able to talk directly to management and being able to have direct lines of communications that don’t currently exist,” Muchnik-Benali told Hyperallergic.
Snyder and Muchnik-Benali said they were inspired by peers at dozens of American museums and art institutions who have successfully unionized in recent years. They also said they took advice from colleagues at the Art Institute of Chicago, who have recently unionized.
“Being in a passion-driven industry, we’re expected to go along with things that are not ideal, just, or equitable because we’re told we should be grateful to have a job at the arts at all,” said Snyder. “Cultural workers across the country now understand that this is not a healthy way of working or thinking about your work.”