During his first year on the job at the Frick Collection in New York City in 1998, Jesse Sadia, a former catalogue associate at the museum, realized he had no idea what occupied his colleagues’ time outside of work. He started asking around and discovered he was surrounded by artists like himself.
“Some of these people were even showing in galleries,” said Sadia. “It was sort of a darn shame that there was no creative voice.”
In 1999, Sadia organized the first of 23 internal staff shows at the Frick. He asked around 10 of his colleagues to submit two-by-two-inch artworks and then arranged them discreetly on the library shelves he worked between. He told Hyperallergic about a conversation when the head librarian walked in.
“I hear that there’s something going on here, some sort of art-related thing?”
According to Sadia, when he explained his tiny exhibition, his boss was impressed, and the Frick’s annual staff show was officially born.
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual staff art exhibition garnered media attention when it opened its doors to the public for the first time. As it turns out, however, these shows are anything but rare. Museum workers across the country have found ways to amplify their artistic voices, crafting interdepartmental and intergenerational exhibitions in which they show their own work alongside the art they care for.
Elsewhere in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art spends up to three months organizing its exhibition of workers’ art. There’s an opening reception, professionally designed posters, and a submission review process. The institution held its sixth iteration of the public exhibition this past August, a few months after the museum’s union reached its first contract.
“I am always impressed by how multitalented everyone is,” Sarah Fortini, the Whitney’s senior employee experience manager and a member of the show’s organizing committee, told Hyperallergic. She noted that she likes getting a glimpse into her coworkers’ lives outside of work.
Across the East River at the Noguchi Museum, gallery attendants Orlando Lacro and Shamysia Waterman revived a long-dead tradition at the institution this June when they curated an exhibition of works by their peers. They advocated for each participating artist and art handler to be paid.
“It takes a village to make this museum the well-oiled mechanism it is,” Waterman told Hyperallergic, referencing the title of the show, A Living Mechanism. The exhibition was organized loosely around the theme of “tools” and included sketches of bands with their instruments, an abstracted metal sculptural “listening device,” and a computer screen with exposed wires. Others were portraits and still lifes that reflected on what Waterman and Lacro referred to as the “inner workings in your life.”
“We are the instrument that makes the museum the beautiful sculpture that it is,” said Waterman.
Cara Johnston, the senior manager of database marketing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), told Hyperallergic that the institution had given her an exhibition opportunity that she “wouldn’t have possibly had” had she not worked there. Johnston runs a pet portrait company and her work had never been displayed in a museum or gallery before it was hung in the MFA staff show, held this year at the Copley Society of Art on Newbury Street.
Johnston submitted “The Watcher” (2022), a speckled mixed-media portrait of a sharp-eyed hawk that launches its gaze straight at the viewer. She said the work paid homage to her father, whom she lost over the pandemic and who had loved birds of prey during his lifetime.
Staffers at the MFA Boston and the Whitney have earned hard-fought union victories in the past few years. Workers have also organized at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), two other institutions with staff show traditions. At the BMA, union members staged a protest last spring during the opening of an exhibition curated by the museum’s security guards. They held placards that read “Guarding the Guards” — a play on the show’s title, Guarding the Art — to demand better treatment of the people ensuring the safety of the institution’s prized objects.
On the West Coast, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles boasts a particularly extravagant version of the artist-worker exhibition. The biennial showcases the art of around 300 to 400 employees in the tunnels that connect the museum in a presentation aptly titled Getty Underground. In addition to two-dimensional art, the show features film screenings and performances by spoken word poets, musicians, singers, songwriters, and dancers.
“It’s amazing to see,” Laura Satterfield, a senior staff assistant at the Getty, told Hyperallergic of seeing her colleagues’ visual art and onstage acts. “You just wouldn’t know.” She started a culinary arts program for the exhibition in 2010 and now sits on its organizing committee, which starts planning for the show a year and a half in advance.
The show’s kickoff event includes a flash mob and what Satterfield called “opening day desserts.” A theme is chosen for each year; in 2022, that was “California Dreamin’,” and the museum fittingly rolled in a yellow 1960s-style VW bus painted with daisies and outfitted with surfboards strapped to its roof.
Sadia retired from the Frick in 2020, but still returns to stage the show he started back in 1999. The exhibition has morphed themes and shifted gallery spaces throughout the years and come to play an integral role in the museum’s annual Staff Education Day, when the institution organizes activities, lectures, and workshops for all of its workers.“The surprise to me is how creative people can be,” Sadia said. He returned to the Frick again this month to organize the 2023 staff show, which he titled DISGUISE (the anti-selfie show). “It’s a way of having the coworkers get to know each other better — through creative expression.”