Art Workers

On first glance, Guarding the Art—an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art that was curated by seventeen of the BMA’s Security Department and opened in March, 2022—seems like a step in the right direction for art workers. One might even argue that it’s a remarkably progressive move from an institution that, under the leadership of outgoing director Christopher Bedford, has in recent years done some splashy things like selling “blue chip paintings” to buy more work by women and artists of color. The show was lauded by major news outlets like the New York Times, and when you do arts work in a mid-sized American city like Baltimore, a review in the Times is some kind of holy grail. On the other hand, this tweet about that same coverage from longtime Baltimore reporter Brandon Soderberg might give you pause: “Story briefly acknowledges unionization efforts that BMA is hindering but it still speaks to how terribly labor is covered by the press: An exhibition framed as celebrating its workers while not letting those workers have a wall-to-wall union should not get this kind of press.” While the museum has since changed their position on supporting a wall-to-wall union, they forced the organizers into a lengthy, public battle to stand in solidarity with each other, across all departments. It is also a decision made with Bedford conveniently out the door and on his way to the (unionized) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A wall-to-wall union is one in which all non-supervisory workers in a workplace are unionized within a single bargaining unit. As Soderberg’s tweet makes evident, the landscape of organized labor is not monolithic. There are public sector and private sector unions, traditional unions and radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—also known as the “Wobblies”—that are invested in the ideology that all workers should be united in a single class. In contrast, many larger workplaces are divided into several different unions representing different bargaining units. At a university, for example, faculty might be organized with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), while staff might be represented by a local union that is part of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In order to establish a labor union, workers need to either be given voluntary recognition of that union by their employer or have the majority of workers in a bargaining unit vote in favor of union representation. 

The BMA’s union drive went public in September 2021, when they announced they planned to form their union with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 67. Despite the museum’s commitment to equity and diversity, Bedford refused to voluntarily acknowledge the union in a letter to staff on October 1. Under US labor law, if your employer doesn’t recognize your union, the alternative is to hold an election, either via the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or another governing body. This spring, the museum made a public statement that leadership would not agree to a city-run election, requiring the unionizing effort to divide against itself. Forcing the BMA Union into a NLRB-run election would require their relatively small workforce to split into two unions, because under NLRB case law, security personnel cannot be included in the same union as all other staff. This institutes categories and divisions between workers that they don’t themselves recognize. In late May, museum leadership reversed course, agreeing to a city election—this is a victory for the union organizers who have fought for a single bargaining unit.

It was with all of this in mind that one rainy spring afternoon, a few friends and I walked through the somewhat dimly lit galleries of the Guarding the Art show, speculating that the odd lighting choice was due to guard-curator Chris Koo’s selection of a rather large red and black Rothko. As I admired paintings by Mickalene Thomas and Philip Guston alongside Victorian teapots, I found myself thinking about the categories of art on display—the artworks have been drawn from everywhere in the museum, with none of the usual regard for curatorial departments or chronologies. I should admit here that, as a librarian, I am often thinking about categories, ontologies, and classifications.  As self-described Marxist lesbian President-elect of the American Library Association, Emily Drabinski says, “classification is at the heart of the work of a library.” And yet we need to pay attention to the work that categories do, ever-aware and cautious of the fact that any system of categorizing things will be inherently human and imperfect—racism, sexism, classism, and all baked right in. Categories and classifications are everywhere in our daily lives: we follow astrology meme accounts on Instagram, we take Myers-Briggs tests at work, and many people live and die by the Sorting Hat. It’s easy to poke fun at our incessant desire to put people and things in categories, but we cannot do away with our classifications—without them we’re left with large unsorted theoretical piles of stuff. So, perhaps the most effective attitude is to remain ever-vigilant, ever-critical, ever-questioning.

This is what I was thinking about as I wandered through the two galleries, admiring the diverse array of work in the show. One moment you’re looking at Jeremy Alden’s sculpture, Chair: 50 Dozen (1975), which consists of six hundred pencils glued together to form a chair, the next you’re reading guard-curator Bret Click’s wall text on challenging museum visitors to a game of “Find It” in Jacopo Bassano’s Entry into the Ark (1575-1580). The artworks selected are incredibly varied and the curators’ writing styles are radically different, ranging from researched to personal to cheeky, like Koo’s text for the aforementioned Rothko, which simply reads, “Thoughts?” I left feeling as though the work didn’t fit together with a cohesive “curatorial vision.” I also left feeling as though the many signs throughout the museum directing me towards the show felt like a marketing gimmick. This is not to deride the work of the guard-curators—all the pieces selected were individually interesting and the personal perspectives refreshing—but rather the whole experience left me wondering how much say they actually had, beyond selecting works, in the design of the exhibition.

So, I sat down over Zoom with some of the guard-curators—who wished to remain anonymous—and it turns out, not much. When I asked them about their experience of curating the show, one guard told me the end result “doesn’t feel entirely like our doing, in that it was somewhat like the parents finishing the school project for you. We wanted to be more expressionistic and they curbed that every step of the way.” They had no say, for example, in the title of the show nor the galleries selected and when they suggested “going more punk or DIY” their ideas were outright rejected. As we spoke, one of the curators, who is no longer employed at the museum, even mentioned reaching out to leadership to ask what the purpose of the show was—“did they want to change the perspective of guards, to educate the public, or is it just a ‘risk free option for an exhibition during a pandemic’? The response was that the ‘only reason was because you all asked for it.’” This deviates radically from the story told by the museum itself in their July 2021 press release, where they claimed the show was the brainchild of Trustee Amy Elias and Chief Curator Asma Naeem in an attempt to “to fulfill the museum’s commitment to be more diverse, more inclusive, and more representative of the community it serves.”

Despite their grievances, the guard-curators all said that many of them got a lot of meaning out of the experience, that they were able to spotlight their own practices as artists in the press, and that they were in fact paid for their labor. However, there were also equity issues around how payment was rolled out: the guard-curators were offered different levels of compensation based on arbitrary checkboxes that they had answered early on in the process, before they even knew compensation would be tied to the work. At the time of writing, the museum was working on addressing these issues, but the experience really “killed the mood” for the guards involved. 

I knew it would be a leading question, but it was the one burning in my soul ever since I’d heard about the show, so I asked if the whole project felt performative to them. They responded without skipping a beat, “Yeah, it’s 100% performative, with all the media attention.” But they also described moments of collaboration and solidarity across departments in doing this work. One of the guards said that all the “back of house” departments that they worked with, like curatorial and conservation, were extremely supportive; it was really just those at the very top that wanted to control the narrative and take the credit. In talking to the guards who served as both curators and union organizers, it was clear that they recognized labor differences between their work and back of house work. Other than compensation, the guards’ primary issues were health and safety, as essential workers required to be public-facing during a pandemic, while their back of house colleagues could work from home but were often expected to work obscene hours. There was one clear division that all the workers seemed to recognize in our conversation: that between leadership and everyone else. Upper management’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt  to force an NLRB election is a classic union-busting strategy to divide workers, reduce their bargaining units into smaller and smaller groups with less and less power. The union’s win in securing an election agreement is a testament to growing collective worker power in the arts. 

The Baltimore Museum of Art is part of a wave of art workers unionizing both locally and nationally. In Baltimore, both the Walters Art Museum and Maryland Institute College of Art have active union campaigns. Nationally, museum workers are organizing in large numbers, thanks in part to the initiative of Cultural Workers United (CWU), an arm of AFSCME, the largest trade union of public employees in the United States. Given the precarity of museum labor, it’s not entirely surprising that workers are coming together in droves. According to a CWU accountability report, during the pandemic the largest museums in the country collected $771.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans while laying off 14,400 workers. Further, museums rely heavily on funding from wealthy donors and trustees. As one of the BMA Union organizers put it to me: “The art world is a funny beast. Especially in the United States, a lot of the art work is concerned with serving ultra-wealthy collectors. There’s a conflict between the proclaimed liberal values of museums and the fact that the art world is in service of these ultra-wealthy folks.” Indeed, according to a 2019 New York Times study of 536 board members from major U.S. art museums, 40% came from finance backgrounds, and a significant portion of the rest are in equally ethically dubious fields like real estate speculation, fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, and defense.

Unlike a lot of larger museums, the BMA didn’t do massive layoffs during the pandemic, and after a fundraising bid in 2020 they increased security staff salaries from $13.50 an hour to $15 an hour. Bedford made waves earlier that year by attempting to sell three major works by white male artists to support staff salaries, but he ultimately pulled the sale due to pressure from wealthy donors. The fact that the museum was still able to increase salaries without the deaccessioning left many in the community wondering if the very public sale was more of a publicity stunt than anything else. Further, as BmoreArt reported in 2021, “workers find it hard to reconcile the fact that their director is paid an annual salary of more than $400,000 (according to the latest tax filings) while hourly workers’ pay just recently went up to $15 an hour. From fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020, Bedford’s salary increased from $403,936 to $438,297—the difference is more than what one (full-time, $15 an hour) security guard makes annually.” This kind of discrepancy is endemic in cultural work and lays bare the structural inequities in the production and dissemination of art. 

The creation and exhibition of art involves many kinds of professionals whose work is often invisible: guards and librarians of course, but also preparators, fabricators, researchers, grant writers, assistants, janitors, and many more. While artists and curators are named authors of their work, these other workers mostly go unacknowledged. Guarding the Art is meant to show the BMA’s recognition of their security staff as workers in the production of art—but while the recognition by management is appreciated by the guards, it does not serve to recategorize them in the structure of the museum, where they remain divided from other departments by the BMA’s union-busting tactics. In a Hyperallergic article about a BMA union demonstration on the morning of the press preview for Guarding the Art, Jasmine Liu writes, “Now that guards are questioning long unquestioned labor hierarchies at museums, obliterating the artificial divide between service and curatorial positions, they are seizing the moment to demand better labor conditions.” They want employees to be treated not as “service” or “curatorial,” but simply as “art workers.”

The modern lineage of the category “art worker” goes back to the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), a quasi-organized group of artists, writers, critics and museum workers that came together in 1969 to demand political reform from New York City museums, advocate for minimum wage and universal healthcare for artists, and address issues of racism and sexism in the art world (among other things). The group included revolutionary thinkers and artists like Faith Ringgold, Lucy Lippard, and Hans Haacke. Their early actions were inspired by previous efforts to organize professional artists, like the Artists Union (a trade union formed by artists during the Great Depression) and the Spiral Group (a group of Black activist artists formed in 1963). They were also indebted to the Art Workers’ Guild, which was established in England in 1884 as “an outgrowth of William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement, which had sought to reinvigorate handcrafting as part of an explicitly socialist project to delineate labor.”[1] According to Billy Anania’s essay in Jacobin, the AWC’s actions, like their issuance of thirteen demands to the Museum of Modern Art in 1969 and their 1970 art strike, were integral to the founding of MoMA’s first union and “redefined discussions around labor in the arts after the second Red Scare.” 

Julia Bryan-Wilson notes in her book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era that the project eventually failed to generate solidarity between artists who had different goals for their activism—the AWC fractured into several different groups and was dissolved within three years. AWC members did not question art’s authorship—they left traditional ideas about individual genius intact, and they did not extend the term “art worker” to other workers in the arts, like printers or fabricators. As Bryan-Wilson argues, “the term art worker would present an intractable conflict in that it connected art to work while also distancing artists from labor’s specific class formations.”[2] In highlighting how this is still the case, Anania also cites an essay in the Baffler by Dana Kopel, former New Museum staffer and labor organizer, about the New Museum’s bitter union fight and Hans Haacke’s disappointing role in it: “There I was in Le Pain Quotidien with Hans Haacke, legendary proponent of institutional critique, and he’d just told us he would cross our picket line” to install his exhibition. In the end, perhaps some kinds of arts work are indeed privileged over others?

Art workers have a critical and complex investment in categories. When I mentioned that the theme of this issue was “Two Kinds of People,” and that I was interested in exploring the idea of “Two Kinds of Art Workers,” one of the guard-curators said, “One fear I have is putting this experience into two groups or categories. I worry that people will misunderstand that and it will cause strife. It’s really only the very high ups who are taking all the control.” What the guard-curators and union organizers described to me throughout our conversation was true solidarity: an understanding that there are a variety of jobs that make a museum function and that they’re all equally important. I’ve also seen this in the mission statement of the Art Workers’ Inquiry, a working group of the New York-based communist collective Red Bloom. Many think pieces on Guarding the Art and museum labor in general are quick to mention that artists like Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, and Sol Lewitt all worked as museum guards, or to wax poetic on the artwork of another former guard, Fred Wilson (Wilson’s 1991 Whitney Museum of American Art show Guarded View included four headless mannequins dressed as museum guards). These approaches make evident just how wedded we are to the “long unquestioned labor hierarchies at museums”—the hook of these articles is that a museum guard might potentially be something better: an artist. Art Workers’ Inquiry, by contrast, defines “art worker” as “anyone whose labor contributes to the artistic production process, from dancers to art handlers to bartenders at performance venues.” 

The type of solidarity I want to see in the art world is one that bridges divides between curatorial and service work, one that sees all art workers as integral parts of artistic production. It’s one I’ve perhaps best heard described in a talk Anne Helen Petersen gave at the Conference on Academic Library Management (CALM): “Solidarity is not ‘we’re like a family here.’ In fact, it’s the opposite: solidarity recognizes each other not as intimates, not as people to whom you are obliged to care for, but as fellow workers, worthy of respect, worthy of control over their own time, worthy of a job description that they’re capable of actually fulfilling.” This echoes the guards’ recognition that while back of house and front of house labor issues are different in the museum environment, they are all worthy of respect and appropriate compensation. 

Because arts work can often be reified, I want to turn finally to Fobazi Ettarh’s concept of “vocational awe” which has become foundational to recent library literature. “Vocational awe” is the concept that certain types of work (like library work) are considered “inherently good and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh argues that this pervasive attitude is one that enables workplaces that abuse librarians’ labor. Petersen has extended this argument to talk about “essential workers” during a pandemic. She writes, “You know what we do with people we’ve deemed ‘essential’? We rarely compensate them more. We don’t protect them. We don’t actually venerate them, because veneration entails respect, and respect means paying people a living wage and not asking more of them than we’re willing to give ourselves.” So, in the end, I’m not interested in dissolving the “artificial divide” between curatorial and service work in the arts. I’m not interested in holding up often-invisible art workers like museum guards as having potential hidden talent, in asking ourselves, “is there a Sol Lewitt hidden in that nameless, invisible figure watching you peruse a gallery?” I’m not interested in empty veneration. Perhaps I’ll return to Fred Wilson, who wrote back in 1991, “There’s something funny about being a guard in a museum. You’re on display but you’re also invisible.” What is successful to me about Guarding the Art is that it makes the guards visible, as individual persons—some of whom are artists, some of whom are not. But what the BMA Union offers is to make their work visible, to make them visible as art workers, to support and strengthen all work that makes the art happen.



[1] Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 14.

[2] Ibid, 15.