Baltimore Museum of Art workers are unionizing for livable wages, staff advancement, health and safety.
In 1930, Adelyn Dohme Breeskin became the Baltimore Museum of Art’s first appointed curator of prints—and the first paid staff curator in the fine arts. A recent BMA exhibition, Adelyn Breeskin: Curating a Legacy, commended her work at the museum, which included helping to secure the Cone Collection and establish the print department.
According to curator Laura Albans, Breeskin was born into a wealthy Baltimore family, moved away for school, and later returned as a divorcee with three kids who needed a job. In 1942, when all the men had gone to war, Breeskin became interim director, and then in 1945 became director of the museum until 1962. From the museum’s founding in 1914 until Breeskin’s 1930 hire, curators were typically wealthy volunteers stewarding a collection for the public without pay.
In the context of a national uptick in unionization at museums and cultural organizations, the small Breeskin exhibition subtly illustrated a progression in shifting labor practices. While museums have historically catered to and depended on the wealthy, these days more and more of the workers are calling out inequities in hiring, advancement, and pay. Though some institutions appear to be paying attention and making amends, workers and organizers say the cultural field has yet to shed the notion that working in the arts is a privilege rather than labor requiring fair compensation.
This is why Albans is a member of the BMA Union’s organizing committee, which went public in September. Social media posts excerpted the union’s mission statement: “We are proud to carry out our mission of serving the Baltimore public and providing ‘artistic excellence and social equity’ in all facets of our work. To that end, we are channeling this passion and energy to form a union, which will help build a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable institution and change the long-standing cultural canon of privilege at our museum.”
Joining the local and national wave of labor organizing, BMA workers plan to form their union with AFSCME Council 67, the same union with whom Walters Workers United are currently seeking recognition. BMA workers’ goals include advocating for job security, livable wages, paths for advancement, and greater accountability practices, among other changes.
Organizers say their aims align with the BMA’s goals to remake the museum into a more equitable, accessible, diverse, and inclusive institution. In a statement to BmoreArt, museum director Chris Bedford affirmed their shared interests: “I do believe that museums need to better reflect and serve their communities, and that our community includes our staff. In hearing from so many colleagues over the course of the past few weeks, it is certain that we all share a commitment to the BMA’s DEAI goals and agenda for change. This has driven a mutual willingness to engage in conversation about the possibility of unionization at the museum and to move through this process collaboratively to achieve an outcome that reflects the vision of the majority of the staff.”
Alex Lei, who works in the security department, says union discussions started during the summer of 2020. Initially left out of the planning for reopening the museum, Lei and his front-of-house peers identified potential health and safety issues with the plans, so they wrote a letter to the BMA’s senior leadership and sent it to all colleagues. He says this helped smooth out the reopening process, and management was responsive, creating a committee where front-of-house staff had a voice. But it also got workers in touch with people outside of their department who experienced similar communication and power-dynamic issues. “It naturally led to union conversations” off-site, Lei says. The union effort stalled out during the museum’s winter closure, but organizers became more focused once the BMA reopened in the spring of 2021.
“We’re very fortunate right now, where we have management that does seem like they want to talk to us and want to listen to us. They’ve made a lot of efforts,” Lei says. Pointing to Bedford’s stated desires to diversify his institution and rebuild the museum from the ground up, Lei says a union “is a great way to do it … where we formalize a way for our workers to have a say and be able to hold management accountable, be able to advocate for ourselves.”
Bedford declined to voluntarily recognize the BMA Union, writing in an October 1 email to staff that he and senior leadership have heard from union organizers as well as “colleagues who have expressed a desire not to be represented by a union, and from others still who have questions.” According to a statement on the BMA’s website, leadership has met with the organizing committee in person and has spoken with individuals since the initial union announcement. “[An election] will allow for everyone’s perspectives to be registered through a vote and ensure that this is a choice made truly by the majority of the staff,” the statement reads.
Like their peers at the Walters, BMA Union organizers say there is a supermajority of support for the union among the 100 or so eligible employees, and supporters have signed authorization cards. Organizers informed leadership that they are open to an election, which they requested to be run through the city of Baltimore. Section 1-3 of Article 12 of the Municipal Labor Relations code specifies that workers at the BMA can be classified as special municipal employees if their governing body agrees to define them as such. This classification gives these workers a path toward unionization through the city, rather than through the National Labor Relations Board.
In an email to staff on October 20, Bedford wrote that the museum board and leadership are looking into the city election option. “It is important that we have total clarity about how such a process would proceed, whether the board can make the decision to have a city-run election, and if that choice would affect any aspects of the museum’s operations and ongoing relationship with the city beyond the election itself,” Bedford wrote.
A BMA spokesperson echoed Bedford’s comments and told BmoreArt that leadership is working on scheduling meetings with Baltimore City officials to better understand the city code: “[Application of the city code] may or it may not mean other changes, but museum leadership needs full clarity in order to proceed responsibly.”
Many of the artists and cultural workers who are part of this general increase in labor organizing want to dismantle the idea that working in a job you love means you should accept less than what you need to live. In their public messaging, organizers across the cultural sector in particular often emphasize their love of their work and cite that appreciation as a motivating factor in building power through a union.
“I think that when you like the place you work, and you feel like you’re treated well—which is how I feel on the day-to-day … I think that’s a sentiment that can hold people back from wanting to organize,” says Matthew Papich, a BMA Union organizing committee member who works full-time in exhibitions administration. “To me, it’s not biting the hand that feeds. To me, it’s securing and guaranteeing our future together more carefully, instead of being hopeful for endless benevolence.”
Papich started at the BMA fifteen years ago as an on-call, part-time preparator. He ultimately wanted stability via a full-time job with benefits at a museum he always admired. “I was lucky to be able to ride out sometimes long periods where there’s no work and still remain available to keep my foot in the door when a position eventually did come around—and that’s something that I see still happening at the museum,” Papich says. “Everyone deserves some sort of long-term expectations of what their work will be.”
Albans says equity in museum career paths is “out of line,” with promotions and staff advancement marked by “favoritism.” She started working at the BMA in 2002 as a curatorial assistant, earning a full-time salary working in two busy departments. For 15 years, Albans did not receive a promotion. In 2017, she moved up to assistant curator in the European Painting and Sculpture Department, but the promotion did not come with a raise. Albans says despite positive performance reviews, she has never received a performance-based raise, while other colleagues have. She stayed because she had always wanted to work in a museum, and the benefits (such as health insurance, which is offered to BMA employees by Baltimore City) were good. And she always believed the conditions would improve.
In 19 years, Albans has received occasional museum-wide 1-3% raises, which have been inconsistent; some years there were no raises. A BMA spokesperson said the museum evaluates its ability to give raises typically at the start of each fiscal year while preparing the budget.
Remembering layoffs at the museum after the 2009 financial crisis, Papich emphasizes the need for job security. “We’ve been really lucky through all of the COVID moments to not have to go there, but I think unionizing would help us guarantee that we don’t have to go there,” he says. According to a BMA spokesperson, during the pandemic, the museum’s “primary focus was to ensure that we maintained the entirety of our staff during the COVID closures, which we were successfully able to do.”
Job security has been an issue for Albans recently as well. This year, she was offered a role as a curatorial research associate in the museum’s Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies because her job as assistant curator was getting cut to hire another department head. The job change “definitely lets me know that my working on this unionizing effort is an absolute necessity,” Albans says.
Low wages at the BMA have been in the news a lot over the past year, particularly with Bedford’s controversial plan in the fall of 2020 to deaccession three major works from the collection to generate $65 million for its Endowment for the Future. That fund is meant to raise staff salaries, fund DEAI initiatives, add to the acquisitions budget, eliminate special exhibition fees, and offer evening visiting hours. On the day the works were to go to auction in October 2020, the sale was suddenly called off with plans for the endowment left in limbo.
Implicit in the endowment plan was the fact that many people working at the museum were not being paid a livable wage. Setting aside the deaccessioning debate, workers recognized that a quick fix for their low pay had once again turned into a long-term goal. For Lei, who has worked in security since 2019, it was a reminder: “We do need to advocate for ourselves in this moment … We can’t just have this thing offered and taken away.”
A few months later, in February 2021, the museum announced three gifts going toward the Endowment for the Future, including $115,000 from Jeffrey and Harriet Legum to immediately raise hourly workers’ pay from $13.50 to $15 an hour.
Workers know that museums often get funding from certain donors for specific projects—not all income can be allocated wherever the institution wants to put it. The BMA director’s salary, for example, is determined by the Board of Trustees’ Compensation Committee, and there is an endowment whose sole purpose is to fund the director’s salary. Still, 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.
After assessing the budget for fiscal year 2022, in June the museum informed staff that the hourly rate minimum would increase from $15 to $16 beginning January 1, 2022. The BMA also raised the minimum exempt salary from $40,000 to $42,500 and shared that everyone (including senior leadership) who had not gotten a general raise over the previous fiscal year would get at least 2%. Some would receive more, according to the BMA spokesperson, to “help close market competitive pay gaps.”
Many museum jobs in conservation, curatorial, registration, and exhibitions departments become specialized, making employees dependent on their workplace’s set conditions, and often without a map toward advancement or an opportunity to negotiate better conditions. Jobs in the field are becoming ever more scarce, especially since the pandemic wreaked havoc on the art and culture sector, raising the stakes for unionization.
In Bedford’s October 20 email to staff, he acknowledged “the interest to move expeditiously toward [a union] election,” and said leadership was planning “optional sessions for all colleagues to ask any questions that you might have about unionization at the BMA.” The meetings are open to union-eligible employees as well as their non-eligible supervisors. No one outside of the museum (including AFSCME representatives) is invited, but an AFSCME rep confirmed to BmoreArt that employees who are on the union organizing committee planned to attend the meetings to answer questions. The BMA Union also announced its own info session for union-eligible employees on November 9.
In an October 29 follow-up, Bedford told the BMA Union that he didn’t have updates about the election process, but he was “working actively with the board and senior leadership to reach the appropriate city officials to gather information, in preparation for a conversation with the full board about the possibility of a city-run election.”
“We’re glad that Bedford is willing to talk,” Lei says, “but what we need right now [is] either voluntary recognition or a date as to when we can have an election brokered through Baltimore City so that we can get down to business.”
Albans explains her experience of pay disparity and stagnant wages in stark terms. A single mother when she started working at the BMA, her salary hasn’t increased by even $15,000 in almost 20 years. She’s married now and says she can’t imagine being a single person (let alone a single parent) today trying to live on her salary. “The thought of working at a museum making $42,500, I don’t know how people do that without being married,” she says.
“Many people are in this tenuous position where they love their job, but they don’t get paid enough to make the investments that they want to in their own life or their own families,” Papich observes. “I’d like to see these things change as well. And that’s not just salaries being increased, [it’s] also benefits like parental leave, daycare, transportation, things like that.”
“It’s not about making money,” Albans says, “it’s about making a living.”