Workers picketing outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art (all images by Tim Tiebout)

In one of the last all-staff meetings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) on October 27, 2021, a co-worker raised a question during the Q&A: Was the museum concerned about the number of staff leaving? Were they going to take any action to try to retain staff? Bill Petersen — then general counsel, now CEO — replied, in summary, that while the museum was sorry to see the departures, people were free to leave. The message was clear: Stay or go, I don’t care. To my memory, we haven’t had an all-staff meeting since.

We have been losing staff for months, well before that all-staff meeting in fall 2021, and it has only gotten worse in the months since. We are bleeding talented colleagues because of the museum’s low pay, poor benefits, and lack of professional development and advancement opportunities. It no longer feels like I work at Philadelphia’s premier art museum. We no longer have enough staff to function properly. We have no archivist, no rights & reproduction specialist, no collections database manager; we have only one paper conservator, one preparator, and one press officer. Each remaining staff person is covering the work of two or three people. Staff who are promoted soon learn that their former position will go unfilled. Previously permanent roles, like administrative assistants, are being turned into temporary (what the museum likes to call “term”) positions, making previously stable jobs unstable, and forcing the institution into a constant unnecessary cycle of rehiring positions. For years, museum managers have liked to brag that we do more with less, thinking this is a point of pride instead of a sign of something deeply broken about our beloved museum.

I don’t remember the first conversation I had about unionizing the PMA, but I know we whispered, nervous we would be overheard, but excited that we might be able to make some positive changes to the institution we worked for and cared deeply about. It was before the Art/Museum Salary Transparency Spreadsheet of June 2019, before the Museum was rocked by the public exposure of two major scandals involving upper management in January and February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and before the museum laid off 85 of my coworkers and 42 others took voluntary separation agreements. We won our election to unionize in August 2020 with 89% of the vote, and we have been fighting for a contract since. On August 30, 2022, we voted to authorize a strike with 99% voting “yes.” After our one-day warning strike on September 16, 2022, I was certain the museum would be ready to work with us, but as with many parts of this process, I was wrong. We have been on strike since September 26.

“We are bleeding talented colleagues because of the museum’s low pay, poor benefits, and lack of professional development and advancement opportunities.”

This is the first union I have been a part of, and I didn’t know what to expect from contract negotiations. I knew better than to hope for silver bullets; I knew that a contract was not a magic wand that would fix all the institution’s problems. But I hoped, and continue to hope, for some progress: for acknowledgment of more than three years without raises, for recognition of long-time staff, for lowered healthcare costs, for efforts to raise the systemically low pay. As negotiations have dragged on, museum management has made it clear that they have no interest in meeting the union even halfway. It took two years of negotiations to get the museum to agree to provide four weeks of paid parental leave — up until now, they have offered zero. But it is exactly this progress that tells me we are on the right track.

Our fight to unionize and get a fair contract has highlighted a problem plaguing many museums: the gulf between the values and interests of the board of trustees and the staff. At the PMA, the staff and board are completely isolated. We asked to have a staff representative attend board meetings to encourage communication, but that request was refused. The board is not interested in us or our concerns. The board has no idea what most of us do, and since so few of them have museum backgrounds, they have no idea what museum work actually entails. It’s easy for them to back a $233 million building expansion, but then they balk at the union’s request to raise the museum’s minimum hourly pay from $15 to $16.75.

“At the PMA, the staff and board are completely isolated.”

What has become clear as we march together in the wind and rain, after the museum failed to show up to our bargaining session on September 30, is that this has ceased to be about any rational argument on the part of the museum against the union’s proposals. It has become about ego and pride for the museum’s upper management and board of trustees. Just in the last couple days, rather than meeting to resolve outstanding issues, management has shown that they are willing to risk the museum’s integrity as a public arts institution. In bringing in and paying (at who knows what rate) freelance workers to handle the installation of works of art for an upcoming exhibition, management has not only jeopardized the trust of our colleagues and peer institutions but has also left its own skilled staff literally out in the cold.

Day after day I have marveled at the acts of friendship, communal care, and solidarity that are being forged right outside of the museum’s doors. This is what museum work looks like at its best: vibrant, creative, and responsive, in tune with the people who make the institution work and with the wider communities it ought to serve. Every car that honks for us in support and every curious visitor who shows up and stops to talk reminds us of what makes us love our work. To grant us the contract we deserve, senior management would have to admit that they have been wrong about the union. We are not a small group of disgruntled employees. We are the smart, talented, dedicated staff who make the institution work and we are supported by the public the museum works to serve. Management would have to admit that they are completely out of touch with the staff of the institution and our working conditions. We are fighting for ourselves and the working standards we deserve, but we are also fighting for the heart and future of the institution. We know better than anyone that in order for our museum to thrive, it has to value and support its employees.

Emily Rice is the Collections Assistant for the department of European Painting & Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). She has worked at the PMA since 2010.