No art without art workers: Philly museum strike carries on
@PMA_Union via Twitter

“The art museum is Philadelphia,” curator Amanda Bock said. “There’s no art without art workers, so if you enjoy coming to the museum, seeing art, you need to support the people who make that possible.”

Bock and 180 Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) curators, educators, archivists, and other art workers aren’t feeling that support from one of the nation’s largest, oldest, and most venerable institutions. So, workers struck the PMA on Sept. 26, demanding a voice at work, livable wages, affordable healthcare, and job security.

“A lot of people say you can’t eat prestige,” said Adam Rizzo, president of AFSCME Local 397, representing PMA workers. “I think that’s true.” The PMA is known for its iconic front steps, made famous in the Rocky movie.

The workers struck after two years of stalled negotiations and union busting by museum management, who refused to meet the workers’ contract demands even halfway. Management offered an 11% salary increase through 2024, unacceptable to workers who have already labored without a raise for three years, including during the pandemic and the current inflation spiral.

PMA management has opted to keep the museum open and bring in scabs to install the upcoming exhibit featuring the works of French artist Henri Matisse. Striking art workers have appealed to art lovers not to cross the picket line to view the Matisse exhibit. “Scabby the Rat” has a permanent presence in front of the museum.

“It is not hyperbolic to say our union’s fight for a fair contract…is a fight to save one of the world’s great art museums,” the union tweeted in early August. The workers want a livable wage commensurate with their education and training. They also want to make the institution more responsive to the needs of the diverse Philadelphia community.

The battle at PMA reflects a broader crisis of major cultural institutions nationwide and their prevailing model. Billionaires, corporate lawyers, and politically connected individuals run the institutions. Their class and social bias prevent them from appreciating their employees’ struggles and the wider multiracial working-class communities the institution serves.

Museum management is also out of touch with the swirling debates about how to make modern institutions more responsive to the emerging diverse and democratic multicultural world, including the repatriation of looted artifacts, something art workers have been grappling with for years. Museum management has proven ill-equipped to respond effectively to growing challenges to dominant white supremacist, patriarchal and elitist culture traditionally shaping their operations.

Under the direction of the corporate and wealthy patrons, museums are run like corporations, accumulating huge endowments, spending billions on massive expansions, and bloated administrative salaries while forcing the staff to work for poverty wages. The 2020 median annual wage for archivists, curators, and museum workers was $52,140, according to the Labor Statistics Bureau.

PMA is no different. The museum has a $500 million endowment and a $60 million annual budget. Executives make $500,000 or more per year, and the PMA chose to build a $233 million expansion rather than invest in those who make the museum operate. Management refuses to raise the minimum hourly pay from $15 to $16.75.

Management has resisted transparency in what it pays each employee. It took the Art and Museum Transparency spreadsheet that allowed workers in the industry to share their salaries discreetly. One PMA worker found out she makes less than the fellows and interns she supervises.

As a result, PMA and other museums are seeing a surge of unionization of their workers, mainly with AFSCME and UAW. In 2020, 89% of PMA workers voted to join AFSCME. Security guards and maintenance workers were already unionized.

“Scabby the Rat” has a permanent presence in front of the museum @PMA_Union via Twitter

Many workers have advanced degrees yet work two or three jobs to make ends meet. “We made some progress but it was only on non-economic issues (including providing four weeks of paid parental leave) so the really important stuff to folks who work here is that we want to be able to live in the city of Philadelphia and work at this museum,” said Rizzo.

Besides its enormous endowment, the PMA receives funding from Philadelphia and Pennsylvania to serve the public. “The amount of money city hall funnels into the PMA vs. all of the other art institutions around the city who ARE paying their staff equitably, is something the mayor and city council should be ashamed of,” said Samantha Connors, a Philadelphia-based artist, co-chair of the Exhibitions Committee at the South Philly gallery, Da Vinci Art Alliance, and a member of Common Field.

The workers say PMA management takes advantage of art workers’ commitment and passion for their jobs and cultural institutions. The low wages are forcing a high turnover, which doesn’t seem to concern management. Often management promotes a worker, and their former position goes unfilled. Previously permanent positions are now temporary or “term” positions. The result has been severe understaffing.

“We’re bleeding talented colleagues because of the museum’s low pay, poor benefits, and lack of professional development and advancement opportunities,” wrote PMA employee Emily Rice. “We no longer have enough staff to function properly. We have no archivist, no rights and duplication specialist, no database manager for collections; We only have one paper conservator, one taxidermist, and one press officer. Each remaining employee covers the work of two or three people.”

Artists and cultural workers across the country, including museum workers in new unions at the Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Art Institute, and Brooklyn Art Museum, are sending solidarity and supporting the PMA strike fund. After expressions of solidarity inundated the PMA’s social media, the museum announced it was shutting down the comments section.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler joined the picket line on Oct. 8. Both AFSCME and the AFL-CIO held mass rallies with PMA workers during their conventions this past summer.

“Solidarity with @PMA_Union on strike. Every @philamuseum employee deserves respect, fair pay, and affordable health care. What goes great with some of the very best art in the world? A Union! 100%,” tweeted John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Correction: This article originally attributed an article written by PMA staff member Emily Rice to the wrong person and included an incorrect hyperlink. People’s World apologizes for the error.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.