Workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art held a demonstration at the same time as a media event for Guarding the Art (courtesy AFSCME)

At 9:30am today, March 22, around a dozen members of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) Union held a demonstration right off the front steps leading up to the historic entrance of the museum. They held placards that read “Guarding the Guards” — a rewording of the exhibition title Guarding the Art, curated by the museum’s security guards and opening to press at the same time as their action. Other signs said “1 Voice 1 Union,” “Wall-to-Wall Union Election,” and “Sign Our Union Election Agreement Now.”

The workers’ goal was to put pressure on museum Director Christopher Bedford to sign the City of Baltimore’s union election agreement, which workers say he received two months ago. Without his signature, workers cannot vote to certify their union — which a petition on BMA Union’s website claims a majority of eligible staff support. The hourlong demonstration was sandwiched into a packed day for the workers. Many of them had just come from a meeting with Bedford and Chief Operating Officer Christine Dietz, and some were headed back to the museum to work on a show curated by many of the same guards who are advocating for unionization.

“We were trying to co-opt and piggyback on the media preview day for the Guarding the Art exhibition,” Dereck Mangus, a security guard at the museum, told Hyperallergic.

“The union has basically tried to put their money where their mouth is,” he continued. “It’s like, all right — we agree with [the museum’s] progressive vision and we acknowledge projects like Guarding the Art are in good faith, and a small step in the right direction. But we need to extend this to all departments, not just guards — and to have a union.”

The meeting this morning followed a more adversarial all-staff email from Bedford sent on March 10, also posted on BMA’s website, that indicated museum leadership was unwilling to conduct an election through the city because it vested too much authority in a third-party arbitrator. In that same email, Bedford also reportedly encouraged workers to consider conducting the union election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But that option is categorically unappealing to BMA staff because the NLRB retains a rule they consider antiquated, which would prevent the union from representing both security guards and the rest of the museum’s workers.

“The purpose of that email really was to cause confusion around this process,” a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told Hyperallergic. “How can you celebrate the security guards, but in the same breath, exclude them by suggesting this process?”

The spokesperson added that BMA workers were “really happy … to get their messages across” this morning, “both in their meeting with Bedford and publicly out in the open.” An email from the union sent to leadership and the board of trustees this afternoon, reviewed by Hyperallergic, said that Bedford expressed “support of guards and non-guards being in one unit” during the meeting.

The action today was the BMA Union’s first physical demonstration since they first publicized their intention to form a union in September of last year, with the goals of improving job security, wages, accountability, and health and safety protections at the museum. Workers also cited their desire to be included in conversations around reopening during the pandemic and their interest in pushing the BMA to realize its own vision of becoming a more diverse and equitable institution — a promise made under Bedford’s leadership in 2020, when he controversially proposed deaccessioning three major works in the museum’s collection to fund equity initiatives.

Within days of launching the campaign, the BMA Union won the support of a majority of museum workers. On October 5, a blog post on AFSCME’s website formally announced the BMA Union’s intention to unionize with AFSCME Council 67, the local Baltimore-based chapter of the largest trade union of public employees in the United States. The workers additionally officially requested a union election through the city of Baltimore in October.

Mangus, who has written about museum unions and about his experience curating Guarding the Art for Hyperallergic, added that they “got close to meeting halfway” with museum leadership during the talks today.

But there is additional concern that museum leadership will drag their feet over the next few months given that Bedford will be leaving the BMA to assume the helm at the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) — a unionized museum — in June.

“They drag us along through these processes and stall, just to induce fear or even apathy,” Mangus said. He cited efforts across town at the Walters Art Museum, which have also been stonewalled by similar tactics employed by museum leadership.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the BMA sent Hyperallergic a link to the March 10 statement, which says that “a city-run election, as was requested by BMA union organizers, is not a viable option.”

“The BMA’s board and leadership will respect the outcome of a vote and will continue to work with staff toward greater equity, regardless of that outcome,” the statement says.

The opening of Guarding the Art provides a perfect backdrop for workers to distill the essence of their motivation to unionize — capturing in a nutshell both the unique opportunities they have, but also the challenges they continue to face, as staff members at purportedly progressive institutions desperate to prove their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Seventeen members of the BMA’s security team co-curated the show, selecting works that were particularly meaningful to them. They will also participate in talks and Q&As in late April to discuss their work on the project.

“We are de-privileging people who usually have the power like curators, and privileging people who don’t have that kind of agency and power as guards,” Rob Kempton, a security guard who was also a Guarding the Art curator, told Hyperallergic. “It’s a very kaleidoscopic show. It is diverse in its offering, showcasing different art historical canons and time periods.” Kempton added that he hoped this show would “spark a torch” at other museums. 

Now that guards are questioning long unquestioned labor hierarchies at museums, obliterating the artificial divide between service and curatorial positions, they are seizing the moment to demand better labor conditions.

“We want livable wages and to be able to live well. It’s not that we aren’t, but I find it hard to save — I’m living paycheck to paycheck,” Kempton said. “I think our efforts are warranted, and we aren’t going to go down without a fight.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.