Just In Case You Thought Unionization Was On The Decline In The Arts And Culture Sector

Back in January, 2022 one of the largest museums in the country, employees at the Art Institute of Chicago voted to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees by a vote of 142-44. That’s a 76 percent majority.

As reported by artnews.com in an article by Alex Grengerger, the decision by workers at an institution this budget size is the potential tipping point for more in that group to follow.

The Art Institute union will be the first group of its kind at a major museum in Chicago. It comes amid a larger push by workers in institutions across the U.S. Earlier this week, workers at the Jewish Museum in New York announced a push to unionize. Similar efforts are also underway at the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

While wages and benefits were certainly behind the motivation to unionize, it’s worth pointing out that social justice issues played a role as well. In a 8/3/2021 letter to the public published at the workers’ website, they outline clear goals toward social justice (emphasis added).

At the height of the pandemic, many museum employees were asked to work on site without hazard pay and with limited resources. Almost two hundred of our colleagues were furloughed or laid off. The responsibilities of those terminated or put on unpaid leave were transferred, without discussion or transparent decision-making, onto remaining colleagues. As a result, we have been forced to adapt to a challenging new work environment in which we shoulder greater responsibility for less pay and as few opportunities for advancement as ever. Moreover, these challenges have exposed the structures in the museum that uphold systemic racism. Forming a union that centers the experiences and voices of BIPOC staff is the best means to redress our institution’s colonialist legacy.

Also of note is the role these employees play inside the institution. Unlike the musicians’ unions that dominate the orchestra field, the Art Institute employees are comprised of academic advisers, administrative assistants, and mailroom workers. Imagine if a large segment of orchestra staffs followed suit.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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