On the evening of Thursday, September 28, dozens of Brooklyn Museum union workers lined the institution’s grand entrance, chanting “overworked and underpaid” and “ancient art, not ancient wages.” Visitors to the museum’s Open House, an event celebrating the revamped Asian and Islamic art galleries, streamed in through different entrances in an attempt to circumvent the protestors.
Employees at the Brooklyn Museum officially unionized in August 2021 and began contract negotiations with museum leadership in January of this year. While the two parties have reached tentative agreements on some non-economic issues, they have yet to come to terms on healthcare and wages.
The day before their protest, the union announced that they had filed an Unfair Labor Practices charge against the museum with the National Board of Labor Relations, which oversaw their 2021 election into United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110. UAW Local 2110 represents employees at a score of other other cultural institutions, including the Whitney, the Dia Art Foundation, and the New Museum.
“There just hasn’t been enough movement on the part of the museum to meet us where we’re at,” Liz St. George, an assistant curator in the decorative arts department who sits on the union’s bargaining committee, told Hyperallergic during the protest. “We feel on the bargaining committee that we’ve made concessions and we’ve made proposals that the museum is just not responding to. With this action, we want to put a little pressure on the museum to come to the table.”
Among the union’s demands are a minimum 7% wage increase (set retroactively to July 1) and 4% raises in both 2023 and 2024. According to UAW, the museum is currently offering a 3% increase, a 1.5% increase in 2023 and 2024, and a one-time adjustment that would be applicable to select workers.
A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that although they cannot comment on the specifics of the ongoing negotiations, the museum has proposed a 9% average wage increase. UAW emphasized that this 9% figure is an average and would leave more than half of the union’s workers with only a 3% raise. This increase would fall far below the sky-high inflation rate — calculated at 8.3% from August 2021 to August 2022.
“We remain committed to partnering with our staff to achieve an agreement that advances our commitments to wage equity,” a Brooklyn Museum spokesperson said in a statement. “The museum recently approved a FY2023 operating budget that dedicates nearly $4M in new investments in wage and benefit improvements for all employees,” they added, a result of a “comprehensive wage equity project.”
St. George said that one of the biggest drivers for organizing was the museum’s staggering employee turnover rate. “It’s a constant revolving door,” she said. “Which is something that we’re trying to remediate.”
Owen O’Brien, an individual giving manager in the museum’s Development department, told Hyperallergic that high employee turnover, coupled with what he sees as underpayment, led him to join the union and take a position on its bargaining committee. O’Brien said that pay is especially poor for part-time workers.
Emma Dematteo, a visitors service associate, is one of those part-time employees. She’s been at the museum since 2018 when she was hired as a temporary worker, and excluding a brief stint at the Morgan Library, Dematteo has worked at the Brooklyn Museum “almost [her] entire adult life,” since she was 21.
“I feel like I’ve grown up here,” Dematteo said. “It’s the people here. I always felt really supported and nourished.” Now, Dematteo only works at the museum on occasion and has taken up a job as a nanny. “It pays the bills,” Dematteo said, adding that she is paid $17 an hour at the Brooklyn Museum. The living hourly wage in New York City, as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is $25.42.
“Organizing comes from a deep care and passion for museum work and this institution in particular,” St. George said, adding that many workers are drawn to the Brooklyn Museum for its espoused social justice mission. “This is just about holding the museum accountable to its lip-service to social justice.”
As workers lined the museum’s entrance, another group of union members stood next to Eastern Parkway near an NYPD police car stationed outside the protest, waving signs at cars passing by on the busy street. Their placards read “Art workers won’t kiss ass” and “You can’t eat prestige.”
Drivers honked in response and pedestrians stopped to chat with the rallying workers.
“We do this because we love and care about the museum,” St. George said. “We care about our work here and now, but also what future people coming to the museum will encounter.”
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
Hundreds of Artworks by NYC Teenagers Go on View at the Met
The talented seventh through twelfth-grade students are recipients of the 2023 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
NYC’s Flatiron Building Sells for a Whopping $190M
The sale to outsider bidder Jacob Garlick puts an end to the protracted legal battle between the iconic skyscraper’s five former owners.
McKnight Visual Artist Fellows Discussion Series at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The series features 2021 Fellows David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Rotem Tamir, Ben Moren, and Dyani White Hawk in conversation with renowned curators and critics.
The Best Memes Roasting the “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign
A graphic designer on Twitter created a hilarious send-up of the universally reviled logo, and the rest is history.
Did You Know These Museums Were Free for New Yorkers?
The “Free Admission” campaign is advocating to make ticket pricing information more transparent to visitors, who may be confused or misled by institutions’ language.