Dia's biggest location is in the Hudson River Valley in Beacon, New York. (via Flickr)

Approximately 135 part-time and full-time workers at the Dia Art Foundation petitioned to unionize with Local 2110 UAW on Friday, July 15. Their organizing efforts are the latest in a wave that has swept cultural institutions across the nation, with recent labor developments at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Dia has eight permanent outposts across the United States and Germany, with its largest location in Beacon, New York, employing 105 of the foundation’s 175 workers. That site’s 2003 opening in an old factory helped to cement the riverside town as a popular arts destination and weekend getaway for New Yorkers, with nearby sites such as the sculpture park Storm King Art Center.

The petitioning employees work in Beacon as well as Dia locations in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, Bridgehampton on Long Island, and New Mexico, the last of which entails a small outpost that showcases a site-specific installation by Walter De Maria called “The Lightning Field” (1977).

In their decision to unionize, workers cited a lack of recognition, job insecurity, and low wages: According to a UAW press release, gallery attendants at Dia’s Beacon space were paid a maximum of $15.30 an hour until this month, when the foundation raised their minimum wage to $16. (A Dia spokesperson told Hyperallergic that $15 an hour was the minimum, with some more senior employees earning more.)

“We just got a one dollar raise, but it still leaves us below a livable wage for a single person in Dutchess county,” Joel Olzak, a gallery attendant at the Beacon space, said in a statement.

“How can Dia, with its prestigious Board and reputation, justify paying us so much less than a livable wage?” Olzak added. “Dia’s development in Beacon has actually driven up the cost of housing here. Most of us can’t afford to live in the area, not on Dia wages.”

The petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the first step on the path toward negotiating a union contract. Once the petition is accepted, the NLRB will hold an election to determine whether Dia’s workers want to be represented by the union. If the workers vote to unionize, UAW 2110 and Dia’s management will negotiate a union contract, a process that takes over a year on average.

“As workers at an institution committed to thoughtfully and deliberately supporting artists over the long term, we imagine a Dia that demonstrates the same degree of care and support to the staff that maintain and enliven its sites, locations, and programming,” reads a post on the new Dia Union Instagram page.

Dia’s Chelsea location (photo by Elizabeth Felicella, courtesy Dia Art Foundation)

In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, a foundation spokesperson said: “Dia supports our staff’s desire to consider and evaluate union representation. We remain committed to supporting all staff and we will work openly and cooperatively throughout this process.”

Unionization efforts have swept arts institutions and the country at large. By May 25, the number of union petitions filed in fiscal year 2022 surpassed the total number filed in all of fiscal year 2021, and by the end of June, the total number of petitions was up 58% over the same period last year.

“I work in art education because I believe that museums can be sites for transformative learning opportunities,” said Alex Vargo, employed at Dia’s Learning and Engagement Department for seven years. “All workers at Dia contribute to making art accessible to the public, and unionizing recognizes the importance of our contributions and gives staff a greater collective voice in shaping Dia’s future.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.