Workers at the Minneapolis Institute of Art held a picket on Thursday, February 16. (all photos courtesy Jack Linell)

Workers at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) have endured a trying three years. The institution cut 16% of its staff through buy-outs and layoffs in June of 2020 to compensate for pandemic-induced revenue decline (leadership also took 15% pay cuts). Further attrition has resulted in a museum workforce that remains around 60% of its pre-pandemic level. Employees have expressed feeling overworked, and now they have an expired union contract, too.

The approximately 150-person MIA union includes curators and other non-managerial staff. It is old by art world standards: MIA employees joined OPEIU Local 12 almost 50 years ago in 1974, three years after New York’s Museum of Modern Art formed the first wall-to-wall museum union. Until last Thursday, February 16, when workers picketed outside the museum holding signs with messages like “no money, no Monet,” labor relations at the Minneapolis Institute of Art had been relatively calm, with no strikes or picketing events in at least 25 years.

Negotiating the upcoming two-and-a-half-year contract, however, has been fraught. Since the contract expired on January 14, compensation has emerged as the main sticking point between workers and MIA leadership. The union wants 16% raises over the course of the next two years, but the museum has countered with 9% over two and a half years. Additionally, according to workers, the museum proposed three 5% raises if the union’s nine curators became “salary exempt” workers, barring them from receiving overtime — an offer the union declined.

The union’s requested raises are in response to the sky-high cost of living. Inflation averaged 6.5% in 2022 (the last time inflation was so high was in the early 1980s). Aaron Barger, a systems administrator and union steward on the bargaining committee, pointed out that the museum’s offer is a “real terms pay cut.”

A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that MIA and OPEIU “have a very strong, 50-year relationship.”

“We are optimistic that a new contract will be negotiated successfully,” the spokesperson said. The next bargaining session is March 3.

A sign at the protest last week

To exacerbate the tensions between museum leadership and the union, MIA is operating with unprecedented funding. A $19 million gift in 2021 allowed the institution to operate with a record-high budget of $38 million this year.

“We know their budgets are larger than ever and the institution is in a better place than it’s ever been financially, they just don’t want to spend it on staff,” Barger said.

Yet, some agreements have been reached. New employees will receive 12 vacation days instead of 10; workers can now trade some paid holidays for other days off; and staff members will benefit from an improved discipline policy.

Even with a handful of bargaining wins, some MIA departments are functioning with half the employees they had before the pandemic. The education department is one such area of the museum.

Positions eliminated through layoffs are not required to be refilled, but MIA has posted a host of open positions in certain departments over the last several months. Senior Educator Debbi Hegstrom explained to Hyperallergic that she sees leadership prioritizing staffing what it deems “revenue-generating” areas of the museum, including its lucrative wedding department.

“Many people come to me and talk about their workload,” said Hegstrom, who sits on Local 12’s bargaining committee and works as the union’s chief steward. “They don’t see relief in sight.”

A picket sign reads, “Keep up with inflation; rejoin negotiation.”

“In contrast, we do see the uptick in fundraising via elite dining events held in the galleries on a regular basis and the vacant offices of former passionate colleagues and educators,” Barger said. He added that although points of conflict have always existed at MIA (like in any other museum), there is no longer a way to discuss these problems without workers feeling they are “putting themselves in the crosshairs of management.”

“People just want to be shown some appreciation for what we’ve been doing — how much work, how much labor we’ve put into the museum,” said Hegstrom, who has been at MIA for 25 years. “Because we love our jobs.”

While relations between staff and museum leadership have become strained, Hegstrom said the recent organizing push has brought MIA workers together.

“There was actual joy during the meeting when we made the signs and at the picketing,” Hegstrom said.

“Seeing us show up for each other at last week’s picket fills me with immense pride,” said Barger. “I could not ask for a better group of colleagues, I am proud to know and work alongside all of them.  They are filled with passion for their work and they are genuinely interesting and warm people to be around. They all want the museum to be the best it can be as both a workplace and for the public.”

MIA workers say they are seeking raises in line with inflation.
Thursday’s picket was the first MIA labor event in at least 25 years.

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.