In New York, museum employees have used unionization as a way to better their work conditions over the past decade. Along the way, workers have faced antagonism and sedated processes from their employers to reach contracts. The Hispanic Society of America is no exception. Marking the first museum strike in New York in over twenty years, staff from a wide range of departments, including curators, conservators, art handlers, educators, and fundraisers, of The Hispanic Society of are currently on strike to protest the museum’s unwillingness to meet their demands in negotiating a union contract. To further amplify their cause, they are today picketing outside of The Hispanic Society board member Philippe De Montebello’s Upper East Side apartment building Carnegie Tower.
In an open letter sent to the board in February, workers do not only cite the nature of their employment contracts as a reason for their strike but also the lack of short and long-term vision for programming—which they predict will have adverse effects on fundraising and the staff’s ability to safe guard the collection as their budgets decrease. Other concerns directed towards administration are increased workloads leading to “unbearable stress levels” and recent appointments in “key decision-making positions have no museum or management experience…unaware of the priorities of a museum and particularly the correct procedures regarding collections.” Often museum workers are drawn to their work to preserve and maintain collections or create programming to disseminate and educate the public, high wages and benefits are not a selling point. However, as more unionizations show employees are rising up to demand better work conditions. Museums must make improvements to wages and benefit offerings to continue to operate. The letter paints a picture of workers concerned for the well-being of their institution and their ability to carry out its mission.
In an article in The Art Newspaper, The Hispanic Society Guillaume Kientz called the museum’s Chairman of the Board Philippe De Montebello “the main ambassador of the Hispanic Society.” A heavy-hitter in the museum industry, De Montebello is the former long-time director of Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reportedly, he raised two-thirds of the $50M, earmarked for the renovations of The Hispanic Society. The museum has been closed for six years, since 2017, for infrastructural improvements carried out by Selldorf Architects and Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and was initially set to reopen in March 2023, a date which was pushed to April 6. However, the museum has not re-opened and no new date has been announced.
Unionized workers from The Hispanic Society are picketing outside of De Montebello’s Madison Avenue Upper-East side apartment today as an act of protest in hopes to move contract negotiations between their union and the museum forward. As enter their fourth week of strikes several programs have been canceled including the talk “Murillo. From Heaven to Earth” and other concerts and guided tours.
The museum’s unwillingness to agree to the union’s demands jeopardizes its mission to provide a free and public museum and reference library for art and culture of Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines. Located in Washington Heights, The Hispanic Society boasts an impressive collection of art and decorative arts and a library second millennium B.C. through the twentieth century. A highly reputable institution, Hispanic Society has partnered with many other art and academic institutions to disseminate their collection and widen their reach ranging from City University of New York and Dia Art Foundation to local elementary and middle schools.
Workers at The Hispanic Society filed their petition to unionize in May 2021 following a decision by the museum’s board to terminate its workers pension plans.
“The Hispanic Society has been anti-union from the outset. They conducted an anti-union campaign to try to convince the workers not to unionize. That failed miserably – the vote was almost unanimous. Negotiations have been characterized by acrimony and antagonism to long-term workers. The Union has been forced to file numerous unfair labor practices,” Maida Rosenstein Director of Organizing for Local 2110 of the UAW (United Automobile Workers) told Cultbytes. Rosenstein continues, “The union is a “wall to wall” bargaining unit including curators, conservators, art technicians, education, development, marketing and maintenance staff.”
UAW represents workers at many well-known New York institutions such as Museum of Modern Art as well as Bronx Museum, New York Historical Society, Jewish Museum, Tenement Museum, New Museum, and the Shed, among others.
Both parties are hurting. The Hispanic Society’s management issued a press message on April 6, 2023 stating that management “is disappointed to read recent false narratives that have been picked up in the press and on social media.” The communique also states that an “active minority” of their staff is not “fully embracing” the museum’s new vision and accuses union workers of bullying their colleagues.
It is a struggle for unions and museums to reach agreements. Last month Whitney Museum of American Art finally approved a contract with 2110. Their unionizing process was also made lengthy by the museum’s board—like The Hispanic Society, they filed their petition to unionize in May 2021. The new contract included a 15 percent increase in non-managerial employee wages—raising the minimum pay rates by more than 29 percent—with additional increases of 9.5 percent during the contract which expires in June 2026. Some payments will be made retroactively and employees will be paid a $1,000 one-time bonus when the deal is ratified.
Brooklyn Museum workers filed their petition to unionize in January 2022 and have yet to come to an agreement. An example of museum leadership’s unwillingness to behave at the negotiating table the museum offered a 3 percent wage increase if the union accepts their offer in full, however, the wage increase would decrease to 1.5 percent in 2023 and 2024. The union is asking for a minimum of a 7 percent increase retroactive to July 1, 2022 and 4 percent in 2023 and 2024, according to an article in ARTnews. Some visitor services and retail workers are paid only $16 and change an hour, less than $2 above New York state’s minimum wage mandate.
When The Hispanic Society and the union last sat at the negotiating table on April 3 they were in agreement on many points. The museum offered a deal encompassing retroactive wage increases of 5% and guaranteed future wage increases, competitive retirement benefits including guaranteed contributions by the Society, up to 5 weeks vacation time based on seniority, 15 days Paid Time Off, and minimum salaries for all union positions (ranging from a minimum salary of $52,000 to a minimum salary of $95,000). However, they still required future hires to cover between 10% and 25% of their health insurance—a point that 2110 would not accept.
The Hispanic Society are not the only museum workers who are using striking to push their contract negotiations forward. Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art ended a 19-day strike when their contract was finalized last year.
“The Society is jeopardizing its own invaluable holdings: We are severely understaffed and our incredible collection is in jeopardy because of a lack of proper safeguards, ” says Patrick Lenaghan, a curator who has worked at the Hispanic Society for twenty-eight years. He continues “The strike has shown that the administration is willing to endanger priceless treasures.”
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.