PRINT February 1975

Museums and Unionization

WE NO LONGER THINK art museums as temples above the battle, but the internal conflicts and social failures of museums have yet to be comprehensively defined. A collection of essays in Art In America in 1971 considered the problems of museums, but events have shown how soft and unengaged the museum-based contributors were. There is, for example, no discussion of the position of the staffs of museums, an issue that surfaced, so far as the public was concerned, with the strike at The Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 1971.

To understand this event, it is necessary to consider the factors that led to the strike and to compare the dissatisfaction at the Modern with parallel grievances. Both the formulation of museum goals and labor relations were involved. One symptom of the stresses that led to the strike will be found in the selective inattention of Museums in Crisis, the book version of the magazine articles. The writers included two museum directors and a curator,1 but none of them spared a thought for the staff. The extent of their insulation can be seen if we consider the time at which they wrote, 1970 or early 1971. One year earlier the Staff Association of The Museum of Modern Art had been formed, and in May 1971 it joined the Distributive Workers of America as Local 1, Museum Division. In 1971 a Staff Association was formed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and in the following year, when the book version was published, the San Francisco Museum of Art was unionized.

As we shall see, the insensitivity of the museum-based writers is typical of attitudes that contributed to the move toward unionization. Only one of the contributors was responsive to the troublesome division building in museums, and this was Grace Glueck. She quoted an unpublished 20th Century Fund Report to this effect: “Trustees operate in the milieu in which constant interaction with people and institutions that share their set of values reinforces a common viewpoint. . . It is inevitable that they bring this viewpoint to the operation of museums.”2 The entrenchment of trustees in their own values, unresponsive to input fromother levels of the museum, is one of the causes of unionization.

Something must be said at once about the responsibility of the director. He is, to quote the report of a Committee on Professional Practices set up by the Association of Art Museum Directors, "the sole intermediary between the Board and the staff.”3 Given these terms, it is certainly a sign of the failure of directors when staff relations deteriorate to the point at which protective unions are formed. Directors failed either to mend the disruptive conditions or to anticipate them effectively, thus exposing their boards to the shock of a sudden organizational change not in their hands. At both Minneapolis and San Francisco the directors under whom the unions crystallized were let go by their boards soon afterwards. Anthony Clark at Minneapolis and Gerald Nordland at San Francisco were released either because they had permitted the union to form or because of insufficient contact with staff conditions. I wish the explanation were the latter but suspect it to be the former; at any rate, it is clear that situations developed which the directors could not control. At both the Modern and Minneapolis another factor was operative. Both institutions had a directorship problem: at the Modern, after Rene d’Harnoncourt’s death, Bates Lowry and John B. Hightower flashed past before Richard Oldenburg became director; and at Minneapolis the rapid succession after Richard Davis was Sam Hunter, Carl Weinhardt, and Anthony Clark. This was unsettling, to say the least. A majority of senior staff members had been in the museums much longer than the directors, so they witnessed the repetition of error and an accumulation of estranging improvisations by men trying to establish their authority in a hurry. Whatever their personal differences, these directors all neglected a staff whose continued subservience was assumed.

We can draw up a tentative schedule of disaffection. In January, 1970, a staff meeting at The Museum of Modern Art condensed its criticism of management into three leading points: “1. Lack of information about Museum policies; 2. Lack of Personnel Manual; 3. Suppression of Curatorial Council Committees reports by Museum.”4 The next month a petition was drawn up objecting to an announced increase in the admission charge to the museum (from $1.50 to $1.75); it was disregarded. In June, criticism of management reached the point at which the museum workers formed a Professional and Staff Association (PASTA). A year later it received a charter from the Distributive Workers of America. An immediate election was conducted under the National Labor Relations Board and PASTA was certified as a collective bargaining unit. Management evinced resistance from the beginning. Early in 1971 the museum claimed that more than 60 members of the Staff Association were ineligible for inclusion in the bargaining unit. Then, while negotiations were proceeding the museum dismissed 53 people, 36 of them members of PASTA. This led to the first strike, 15 days in August–September 1971. It seems clear from the spectrum of museum attitudes, from uncooperativeness to pressure to attack, that it hoped to break or weaken the newly formed and in some ways still tentative group. Delays and evasions in later negotiations provoked the association to a second strike, seven weeks in October–November, 1973.

The aims of PASTA are not restricted to salaries and working conditions, but include a strong claim to participate in decision-making on museum policy. In relation to the latter issue the matter of disputed titles is important. Several positions were excluded from the original bargaining-unit certification, among them curators, a fact about which the association had second thoughts. Two excluded curators, sympathetic to PASTA, wrote a memo to Oldenburg, objecting to the classification of their jobs as managerial. Betsy Jones and Kynaston McShine argued that real managerial functions began only with department heads and that there were only differences of degree between the various ranks of curatorial staff.5 They infer, plausibly, that the tactic of keeping curators out was designed to weaken the bargaining unit. Five associate curators supported Jones and McShine, and argued against the managerialization of the curator.6

At Minneapolis the director Anthony Clark set up an elite committee, nicknamed the “flying squad,” to control direct access to himself. The formation of the committee exacerbated the existing discontents concerning low salaries and unknown promotion schedules. Dissatisfaction soon reached the point at which a group of active staff members consulted a lawyer concerning collective bargaining agents. They also contacted the Distributive Workers of America and the Teamsters Union for advice. The Museum of Modern Art served as a model of action. (The new director of the Institute, Samuel Sachs III, speaks as if the formation of the union were purely the product of outside interference, in this case Jane Fluegel of the Modern, crossing the state line. He told me that cooperation had been possible within the existing structure of the Institute and that all the union would do was introduce cumbersome procedures. He implied that this would be detrimental to staff interests in the long run.) Then the Institute was shaken by a callous firing: George Reid, the director of education, was dismissed by telegram from Clark when he was out of town. This precipitated the formation of the association. It was not easily arrived at, but perplexed and hesitating staff members were finally united by hearing an ominous address, attendance at which was compulsory, by Atherton Bean, one of the trustees. Reportedly he warned them of the danger of adopting an adversary stance toward the powerful board.

At San Francisco, the staff felt that the director, Gerald Nordland, was oriented entirely toward the board, incidentally a self-perpetuating group, resulting in a neglect of the staff. His lack of interest in the education program was specifically resented. A staff request for job descriptions was ignored by the board, but a fund raiser was brought in at a high salary. Morale was low, and the staff consulted the American Federation of Teachers and the Teamsters as their options narrowed. The worsening relationship of management and staff in both cases reveals a pattern of attenuated contacts and diverging interests, a catastrophic combination.

Unionization is not restricted to the three museums discussed here, because staff self-awareness is related to a more general condition in American museums. Since World War II, art museums have been in an expansionist phase, with building programs and acquisitions booming, until their recent arrest by inflation. Expenditure on new plant, however, was not matched by salary improvements for the staff, who saw their field of activity expanding while they were denied an appropriate share of it. The exhilaration of being associated with a growth-industry sours for those whose benefits are withheld. Expectations were raised in the ’60s, but left unsatisfied. It is worth noting that in both Minneapolis and San Francisco the museums were in the process of rebuilding: a big new wing for the Institute and a rationalized remodeling of the galleries for the Museum of Art. Thus the staff was made to feel with particular acuteness its poverty and its low place on the scale of priorities. It is not clear to me how real strike threats were at either museum: they seem to have been fairly restrained, but in neither case did the trustees want the coincidence of physical expansion and labor trouble. The threat was especially effective in San Francisco since the museum, though a private one, is housed on city property and strike action would have had the support of other city workers in a traditionally pro-labor town.

Despite the fact that museums are suffering from increased operating costs and reduced funds, their staffs see no reason to delay their demands. Organizational history, on the contrary, suggests waiting would merely perpetuate the unsatisfactory status quo. A significant, though by no means the only, cause of unrest and rebellion is employment of women in museums. The supply of educated women made possible their use in positions that have been extended without proper job description or schedule of advancement. Also, working in a museum is a source of prestige; museums benefited and, at first, so did women. However, women who have devoted their lives to one institution and younger, more politicized women both realized that the enjoyable informality of earlier museum employment had changed its meaning and become a form of exploitation. Since women form a majority in most museums in the lower echelons, they have become the major organizers against the existing regimes. Museums have been, and still are being, run on a personalized patchwork of individual deals that saves the boards money but are highly unjust. It was not until exchanges at the meetings that led to the forming of the staff associations in New York and Minneapolis, for instance, that workers realized how wildly their salaries varied. At this point gentility was revealed as a screen for exploitation.

Museums founded individualistically tend to perpetuate their initial casual structure in some respects. The Museum of Modern Art is, of course, the classic example of such a museum, started by Alfred H. Barr and some friends, most of whom took turns at doing everything. As the institution grew, it accreted departments and posts but no rationalized internal work procedure: one was expected to sacrifice quotidian gain for the pleasure of serving culture. This pleasure is real and includes: collaboration with intelligent peers, the handling of art, original research, contact with artists. The fallacy was to assume that these satisfactions were forever linked to substandard salaries without job protection. After years an iniquitous secret disparity of salaries developed, with lives dependent upon the oral expression of good will. Once museums began to resemble corporations rather than family businesses, however, this informal structure became unbearable. The exhaustion of informality is a prime reason for unionization. To it must be linked the fact of increasing professionalism, which is a national, not simply a museum-based, characteristic.

“Profession” has several shades of meaning. It can refer to a “vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning” but it can also refer to the ability of an “expert player” (Random unabridged). Thus museum workers in education, publication and conservation departments, on the basis of their expert skill, have an identity in work which they will now strike to define and extend. There was a time when the title “professional” was reserved for curators, but the humanistic sense of profession, in opposition to a “body of persons engaged in an occupation,” is maintained strongly in the staff associations.

The situation is defined slightly differently at each museum but in general the ceiling of the union is immediately below the rank of (full) curator. Supervisory roles are judged to belong to management. At the top there is the director and the board whose policies he carries out and below, to use the hierarchic term, is the staff. Curators occupy a middle zone, privileged because of their scholarly or creative tasks, but somewhat isolated. Directors are protected by the Association of Art Museum Directors, and the staff are in the process of building their own protection. The curator is now being brought closer to the board, outside the bargaining unit, but without any real guarantees. I have a sense that curators occupy an equivocal position: on one hand, there is his or her role as keeper of the flame, drawn toward the power represented by the board; on the other hand, there is a potential affiliation, via peer-group interests and friendships, with the younger professional staff. As assistant and associate curators get promoted they pass out of the association’s jurisdiction, of course, but in a year or so, when more and more association members will have moved up, it is probable that an organization of some sort will be devised for the curatorial level. In the meantime it is possible for management to make a temporary use of promotion to deplete the labor groups’ ranks, as occurred at both Minneapolis and San Francisco.

The staff associations at museums do not include groups that are already unionized. At The Museum of Modern Art, for example, four unions cover the kitchen employees, tradesmen, guards and watchmen, projectionists, and warehouse, mail room, printing, and film inspection workers!.7This points up an important characteristic of the new labor groups that we are discussing: though not curatorial they are definitely white collar, not blue. The absence of blue-collar workers from museum groups is linked to the preference for forming associations rather than unions. The staffs maintain a nostalgia for “professional” in its early sense, though it has not inhibited their militant response to a changing society.

Perhaps this is the point to define the terms union and professional association. Both engage in collective bargaining on behalf of their members and both require certification under the National Labor Relations Act, after which employers have no choice but to recognize them. Sometimes a professional association is self-regulatory, setting norms for the conduct of a profession, whereas a union is presumed to be primarily concerned with wages and working conditions. In practice, however, such functions overlap, as with the monetary preoccupations of the American Medical Association, and more overlaps can be expected in the future. In San Francisco, for instance, the Office and Professional Employees International Union includes only one museum, but it represents comparable groups that have come together since 1972. These are the Clerical Employees of the University of San Francisco and the Clerical Employees of the Pacific School of Dentistry, that is to say, white-collar groups with a newly developed sense of professional identity. It seems probable that as economic pressure continues, owing to inflation, more unprotected white-collar workers are likely to seek to defend their salaries and status. The unionization of museums is, therefore, in line with a social trend that museum trustees, who are largely drawn now from corporations, might have been expected to recognize and discuss with their directors, though there is no evidence that this occurred.8

Personal anxiety followed by job analysis characterizes the preunion phase in museums. A clear example of this process is a staff report to the trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Art concerning salaries in 1972. The report compares wages at the museum with those in three neighboring museums to show the consistently low scale of the San Francisco Museum of Art. Present and earlier outputs of the museum are compared to demonstrate staff productivity (measured, for instance, by the number of exhibitions originated at the museum). In addition, the report used Bureau of Labor statistics to show that “more than half of the San Francisco Museum of Art staff are maintaining themselves and families on considerably less than is required to meet the national standard of living, let alone the very high Bay Area standard.”9 Initiatives like this have secured staff improvements in wages and job management, but it must be recognized that input from below is not welcomed by directors and trustees. In planning and allocating resources, they have dwelt on such matters as architectural extension, acquisition, and temporary exhibitions rather than on staff needs. What museums will be like in the next few years will depend very much on how successfully the boards modify their usual scale of interests and establish better communication with the staff.

It must be stressed that unionization in museums has been carried out in a spirit helpful to their continuance. Karl Jaspers described “the university as the corporate realization of man’s basic determination to know”10 and something similar can be said of museums. Labor organizations within museums do not weaken educative duties or contemplative opportunities. The future stability of museums depends on developing more equitable institutional forms than in the past and, in this sense, the unions are working to advance, not retard, the long-term function of museums. To pursue policies that entail the lowering of the self-esteem of the staff, as trustees have been willing to do for years, is wrong on two counts. It is brutal, and it is not in the interests of the trustees as it weakens the operational strengths of their institution.

In the three museums discussed here it was a cardinal point that the staff wished to do more than get more money and situate themselves in more rational institutional structures. It has been their aim also to contribute to policy. It is certain that directors like Clark, Nord land, and Oldenburg recognized this ambition, but it is possible that they have misinterpreted it. To those who are defending an established power structure, proposed additions and revisions are not attractive. While the staff would increase its power by winning a place on theboard, the impulse is not merely competitive. On the contrary the staff is convinced that the trustees can no longer be relied on to act as the sole competent determinants of museum policy. It is significant that at Minneapolis and New York, the museum workers found it necessary to make a point, to the labor unions they were affiliated with, that museums have a special character, different from a mercantile or industrial employer.

Owing to the prior unionization of the blue-collar workers in museums, the staff associations were in a position to express their concern for the museum’s cultural goals. They offered their expert knowledge and sense of the public to the boards, but this has turned out to be the point of maximum resistance. At Minneapolis, the staff attached great importance to policy contributions, such as contesting an Institute decision to reduce community relations and concentrate on the newly erected central facility. (This covered work in schools, storefronts, and citizens’ advisory groups, all of which entail contact with the urban poor.) The staff’s sense of obligation to culture, expressed by the desire for institutional participation, has been stone-walled. Trustees remain “those who rule” and workers are those with no control over policy. Decision-making remains closed to staff representation, though the boards have conceded higher salaries, improvements in job descriptions, and working conditions. Despite their intention, the associations have found themselves consigned to the economic concerns of a traditional union. It follows that if they are identified like this, it is easier for boards to refuse their (lowly) input. The staff associations are partly to blame here. During the seven-week strike at the Modern, for example, the copious press releases and position papers were stronger. on short-term reforms than on alternative policy.11 This is understandable during the conditions of a strike, including picketing in winter, but the area remains vague.

Once the associations or unions were established as factors that management had to allow for and contend with, staff motivation seems to have relaxed. After the reduction of immediate injustices, the unions became less vigorous. This is partly because their members’ energy was not endless and at the Modern fatigue set in following extraordinary exertions needed to mount the first strike of its kind and to publicize it effectively. (There was not only the actual dispute, there was also the necessity to define responsibility in terms that were adequate to the notion of humanistic culture.) A comparable levelling out is perceptible at Minneapolis and San Francisco too. What is the reason for this? In part it may be the quiescence that follows accomplishment. It may also be that union strategy had not sufficiently planned what to do after getting established. To this must be added the fundamentally uncooperative attitude of directors and trustees who have conceded unionization without acknowledging the logic of its occurrence or their own complicity in the conditions that induced it. There is then a possible convergence of (1) a sense of depletion, (2) comparative unpreparedness for follow-up action, and (3) a hostile management.

I assume that the hostility may weaken in the long run, in the interests of good adaptation on behalf of management, but for the associations to get off the present plateau they will have to revive their original claims to contribute to policy. This is the area in which they have been absolutely resisted and, so far, remained acquiescent. The extension of unions and associations to cover curatorial posts seems one promising course of action if, as I think, more curators will be disposed toward such a development. This is certainly why Oldenburg described “the so-called ‘challenged’ titles” as “the issue on which we have reached an impasse.”12

The museums discussed are not just isolated cases of managerial bad luck. On the contrary, the reality of staff problems is getting wider acknowledgment, as is suggested by two points from a new report on museums by the American Assembly. Point 15: “There should be closer cooperation between curators and educators on the museum staff. They should be equals in pay and status.” And Point 30: "The professional nature of museum work is affirmed. The professional rights and responsibilities of the staff should be fully recognized. Professional opportunities should be comparable to those offered by schools, colleges, and universities.13

The change from vulnerable individualism to fortified group is likely to continue with the recession in America. The example of PASTA was immediately transferred into other museum situations because of their common dysfunctions. As more unions or associations are formed, their effectiveness will increase. Already there is a Museum Workers Association of New York City, and, since I started work on this article, the Whitney Museum has formed a staff association. Such a pattern is one that class-affiliated trustees and their directors may resist in some of the ways discussed above, but what they should be doing is figuring out how to work with a decisive new force in the knowledge industry. It is, moreover, a force with the authority and vigor of broad social change behind it, the organization of white-collar workers. This is the inevitable development of an information-based culture, and as such, it cannot be contained by expedient concessions and malicious delays. Trustees are now in a position to learn this from the record of museum unionization to date and from the certainty of its future expansion.

I am indebted to the following people for information, collected sometimes in personal interviews, sometimes in telephone calls: in New York, Pam Adler, Martha Beck, Helen Ferulli, Jane Fluegel, Robert Hatch, Pat Hilles, Dennis Longwell, Terry Lynch, and Robert Projanksy; in Minneapolis, Susan Brown, Barbara Camm, Samuel Sachs III, Gary Sherman, and Barbara Shissler; and in San Francisco, George Davis, Bonnie Hughes, June Ivory, Susan King, and Michael McCone.



1. Museums in Crisis, ed. Brian O’Doherty, New York, 1972. Originally in Art in America, July–August, 1971. The directors are Thomas W. Leavitt and Bryan Robertson, the curator Edward F. Fry. I exempt John R. Spencer from this complaint since he directs a university museum, which is something else.

2. Grace Glueck, “Power and Esthetics, the Trustee,” Museums in Crisis, p. 122.

3. Professional Practices in Art Museums, Report of the Professional Practices Committee, Association of Art Museum Directors, 1971, p. 13

4. Professional and Administrative Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art, undated press release, Chronology.

5. Memorandum to Richard Oldenburg from Betsy Jones and Kynaston McShine, October 2, 1973.

6. Memorandum to Richard Oldenburg from Eileen Bowser, Alicia Legg, Jennifer Licht, Adrienne Mancia, and Bernice Rose, October 4, 1973.

7. Ronald Miller, “Survey of Collective Bargaining in 96 Museums,” Typescript, sponsored by the National Museum Act (administered by the Smithsonian Instition, 1974).

8. National Endowment for the Arts, Museums USA: Highlights. Washington, 1973: “Approximately two-thirds of all trustees are either business executives (24 percent), volunteers active in civic affairs but not otherwise employed (21 percent), or lawyers, bankers/accountants/financial experts, and educators (21 percent),” p. 16.

9. “Report to the Trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Art on Staff Salaries,” Typescript, 1972.

10. Karl Jaspers, The Idea of the University, London, 1960. p. 20

11. This problem is discussed in “Strike at the Modern,” Artforum, December 1973, pp. 40–47.

12. Memorandum to the Staff from Richard Oldenburg, October 5, 1973.

13. Art Museums in America, Report of the 46th American Assembly, 1974. Point 14 is on p. 6, point 30 is on p. 8.