In 2018, I was working as an editor at the New Museum in New York when a handful of colleagues and I started talking about the issues we were facing at work: unlivable wages, particularly in an expensive city that the museum itself plays a role in gentrifying; impossible workloads that led to extensive unpaid overtime; a culture of disposability that resulted in high turnover and workplace abuse; and more. Over the following months, our conversations grew to include the majority of lower- and mid-level staff at the museum, and collectively we decided to form a union. Despite intense and sometimes illegal resistance from museum management, we overwhelmingly won our vote to unionize in January 2019 and affiliated with Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers. By fall 2019, we had ratified our first contract—another uphill battle against management, one that almost resulted in us going on strike.
In the four years that have followed, countless other museums organized, formed unions and negotiated strong contracts that protect and improve the lives of their staff. These include the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museums in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and many others. These wins come amid a larger resurgence of unionization efforts in previously un- or under-organized sectors in the US: technology and digital media companies; coffee shops, particularly Starbucks, of which over two hundred stores have now submitted petitions for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board; and service-based nonprofits, where workers are also pointing to a chasm between these organizations’ progressive missions and toxic internal dynamics. All of this points to a new or renewed willingness on the part of those who work in the art sector to see themselves as workers alongside those in vastly different industries.
In the summer of 2023, major struggles for workers’ rights have erupted across the US—and especially in Los Angeles, where I live. In early May, over 11,000 film and television writers organized with the Writers Guild of America went on strike, joined two months later by thousands of members of the Screen Actors Guild. After several months of highly visible picketing and, more significantly, the withholding of their labor, the Writers Guild of America and then the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) recently agreed on new contracts with major improvements. Alongside them, hotel workers organized with UNITE-HERE Local 11 have held short-term strikes all summer and into the fall at hotels across Southern California where they are attempting to negotiate new, more just contracts. In October, 75,000 nurses, medical technicians, and support staff who work for the Kaiser hospital network held a three-day strike for better pay, safe staffing, and more. And thousands of members of the United Auto Workers across the country—under new, more militant leadership—have just concluded their strikes against GM, Ford, and Stellantis/Chrysler, known as the Big Three automakers.
Behind the recent cascade of highly visible union organizing in the United States lies the fact that working conditions in the United States have been bad—and worsening—for a long time. Union density continues to decline, a result of decades of anti-labor policy and the closure or decertification of unionized factories and other much larger union shops. The explosion of museum unions is an unequivocal good, but it has its limits in an industry and a country shaped by privatization, austerity, and the violence of racial capitalism.
In 1920, artists George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Wieland Herzfelde wrote, “In a time of widespread hunger, [the bourgeois] invest their surplus capital in the accumulation, the hoarding, of … the masterpieces of master ‘creators’ (don’t insult such maestros by calling them workers!),” ironizing the unwillingness of most artists to see themselves as members of the working class. They vehemently call for artists to commit to working-class struggle in their art, in opposition to the bourgeois formalism popular at the time. A century later, museum organizing suggests a more widespread mindset shift among art workers, but Grosz, Heartfield, and Herzfeld’s structural critique holds. The art world still relies on the hoarded wealth of capitalists and ultimately exists to enrich them—not only through the buying and selling of blue-chip artworks but through the philanthropy that funds art institutions, which Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “twice-stolen wealth”: stolen from workers whose labor creates capitalists’ profits and then stolen again from the people in the sanctioned tax evasion called philanthropy.
Yet the art sector thrives on the sense of its exceptionality, on the idea that art is a special domain of freedom, unburdened by the brutal rules of the “outside” world. The work of art—of museum staff and studio assistants and gallery workers and artists themselves—is seen not as work at all but as an enactment of one’s passion and creativity, as something almost transcendent. Critic Marina Vishmidt writes that “the basis of art’s exceptionality to the law of value that obtains in capitalist societies is that art production is not conducted under the conditions held to be typical of this law”—that is, art is not produced by wage labor. Or so the argument goes. I’m reminded of one hostile New Museum manager’s offhand comment to a colleague during our organizing campaign: “Unions are for coal miners.” As in, that’s where the labor is, over there in the mines and the factories. Never mind that more people in the US now work in museums than in coal mines, as Rebecca Solnit has noted.
Art’s supposed exceptionality has long been wielded as a justification for exploitative labor conditions: under the toxic sign of doing what you love, you’re lucky to have a creative or prestigious job and should be grateful—which is to say, stop asking for a living wage. In practice, however, art work is work, as the rank-and-file organizers of recent museum union campaigns continue to foreground. Art workers’ labor produces value, and not simply or even primarily artistic or cultural value; our labor serves to produce monetary value for the capitalist class: the collectors whose artworks are worth more and more with every museum show they’re included in, the dealers who also profit from these leaps in value, the museum directors who build careers on the backs of their exploited staff, and so on. Grosz, Heartfield, and Herzefelde remind us: “Workers! You create the surplus value that makes possible the very existence of exploiters who load their walls with ‘aesthetic’ luxuries.” Workers install exhibitions, create exhibition didactics, and conduct museum tours—on salaries that often tether them to the working class long-term. In many cases, workers also produce the art itself, toiling in the studio-factories of established blue-chip artists and emerging market darlings alike.
The phrase “We Can’t Eat Prestige” appeared on union buttons as early as 1974, when Harvard clerical staff began what would be a fifteen-year fight to have their union recognized. But as white-collar jobs of all kinds increasingly privilege flexibility and employee initiative—a pattern described by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in the 1990s—it becomes clear how the art industry serves as a model for and exemplar of neoliberal capitalism. Examining management literature from the 1970s onward, Boltanski and Chiapello noted an increasing emphasis on workers’ autonomy and individuality. Rather than greater freedom for workers, this shift represented a cooptation by the capital of the 1960s fights for liberation and has resulted, for workers, in greater financial insecurity and an internalization of capitalism’s cult of individualism—characteristics epitomized by the figure of the artist, and ones intended to undermine working-class collective power.
The risks of union organizing in museums—verbal abuse, targeted discipline and/or job loss, diminishing possibilities for a career in the art field broadly—are serious because unionization poses a real threat to institutional hierarchy and the hegemony of the capitalist class. Those risks, however, are not confined to museum unionism; they surface wherever organizing threatens the unspoken role of the institution—and, crucially, its leaders and funders—in maintaining racial capitalism.
The recent upheaval at Artforum is an instructive example. On October 19, almost two weeks after the apartheid Israeli state intensified its brutal siege on Gaza in response to Hamas’s incursions into so-called Israeli territory and seventy-five years after the Nakba, in which Zionist forces violently drove over seven hundred thousand Palestinians from their homes, the US art magazine of record published a letter online expressing support for Palestinian liberation, signed by hundreds of celebrated and lesser-known artists and art workers. The crackdown was almost immediate: The following day, gallerists Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy, and Amalia Dayan published a response, also in Artforum, condemning the “one-sided view” of the open letter and foregrounding “complexities” over the original letter’s frank acknowledgment of genocide. (Notably, Amalia Dayan is the granddaughter of Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli military commander and politician directly responsible for the dispossession and murder of many Palestinians.)
Within days, Artforum publishers fired editor-in-chief David Velasco, several other staffers resigned in protest of his dismissal, and many well-known signatories—including Peter Doig, Tomás Saraceno, and Joan Jonas—withdrew their names from the original letter. This occurred in response not only to the three gallerists’ reaction(ary) letter but to direct counter-organizing by other members of the art-capitalist class—notably Bed Bath & Beyond heir Martin Eisenberg, a major collector of emerging artists and supporter of the New Museum, among other contemporary art institutions. Gallerists and art dealers urged their artists to withdraw their names, and collectors threatened to deaccession works by artists expressing support for Palestinians. Both publicly and behind the scenes, the machinations of the collecting class made clear their intentions—and more troublingly, their ability—to suppress dissent and consolidate support for capital accumulation and the maintenance of white supremacy via the Israeli state in occupied Palestine.
Extending across the US and Europe, this fascistic campaign of repression targets anyone who dares to express solidarity with the Palestinian people—even, in some cases, to express that Palestinians are human, deserving of life. The Museum Folkwang in Essen just recently cancelled artist Anaïs Duplan’s Afrofuturist section of an exhibition in response to posts Duplan made in support of Palestine on his personal social media account. The cancellation reflects the increasing reach of anti-Palestine surveillance and repression from both the art world and the German government—and unintentionally underscores the longstanding relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation struggles. Further, this international repression campaign protects not only the reactionary viewpoints of many art world capitalists but their material interests as well: there are enormous profits to be made from investments in Israel’s massive global security apparatus as well as the significant oil and gas reserves in the occupied Palestinian territories.
I am struck by something the scholar and critic Zoé Samudzi wrote and shared on Instagram very recently: “The past month and months have already been evidence of this, but we are in for an even ruder awakening about the by-design limits of ‘art’: art institutionality cannot be a stalwart against fascism because fascistic illiberalism thrives everywhere racial capitalism has made a playground, the art industry is that ground par excellence But artists and critics and writers are, or at least, we could be.” Art workers should continue organizing within the institution as well as beyond it, but as Samudzi makes clear, we must not let our organizing be of the institution, for the institution’s success depends on the impossibility of our shared liberation.
Parts of this essay have been adapted from Kopel’s essay “Proving the Rule: The ‘Exceptionalism’ Problem with Art-World Labor,” published by Momus in April 2022, and from her keynote presented at the Art Workers’ Summit on October 13, 2023.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Screeshots from different newspapers’ headings.