Proving the Rule: The “Exceptionalism” Problem with Art-World Labor

Artist Union Card. Image via the Slobodkina Foundation.

It’s a rainy winter day in New York amid the ongoing apocalypse and I am struggling to think about museums. I do not, any longer, work in a museum—not since many of my colleagues and I were laid off by the New Museum in summer 2020. It’s been a year and a half since then, three years since we voted to unionize, setting off a domino effect of museum and art worker union campaigns across the United States, from the Whitney and the Guggenheim in New York to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. These union wins are significant, pointing to a renewed willingness on the part of those who work in the art sector to see themselves as workers alongside those in vastly different industries.

They come amid a larger resurgence of unionization efforts in previously un- or under-organized sectors: 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. But the work of unionizing doesn’t end with a successful vote or an agreement from management to voluntarily recognize the union. Bargaining a first contract is equally important and equally, if not more, intense. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for instance, unionized workers shared stories on Instagram about putting off doctors’ visits for years or incurring debt for receiving medical care, while MFA Boston’s union initiated a one-day strike in their fight for a fair contract.

Despite the recent cascade of highly visible union organizing, 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 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!),” artists George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Wieland Herzfelde wrote in 1920, ironizing the unwillingness of most artists to see themselves as members of the working class. 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—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”—and ultimately exists to enrich them.

Yet the art sector thrives on the sense of its own exceptionality, on the idea that art is a special domain of freedom, unburdened by the brutal rules of the “outside” world. This myth has been prominently undermined over the past several years, particularly as the Covid crisis emphasizes that art institutions are fundamentally no different than other businesses. When the pandemic hit the US, museums were at least as quick as employers in other industries to implement layoffs; tens of thousands of museum workers lost their jobs. As art institutions have reopened, in many cases they now function with a bare-bones staff, squeezing the workers who remain—a tactic borrowed from the corporate world by the hedge-fund managers and war-profiteers that populate museum boards. A recent article in the New York Times detailed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s struggle to adequately staff the museum with security guards as a result of early-pandemic furloughs and what’s likely high-risk work for salaries teetering just above the city’s minimum wage—much as countless retailers, restaurants, and other businesses are now scrambling to hire and retain workers fed up with low wages and unsafe conditions. If we’re living through the “great resignation,” the art world is certainly no exception.

In New York City, while the number of new cases per day in January 2021 was nearly ten times its previous peak (April 2020), museums and galleries stayed open, by and large, a decision that mirrored corporate America’s callous approach and put the health of their in-person staff—often the lowest paid—at risk. I received countless of the usual emails about exhibition openings, performances, and in-person talks, and only one memo from an art institution announcing that it would close for a month in response to the Covid spike.

In spite of this, 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. Nevermind 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. A friend told me recently about working night shifts for Jeff Koons’s studio a few years ago, making paintings in a windowless room with poor ventilation (and, horrifyingly, a makeshift area in the basement for male employees to jerk off).

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 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.

When we recognize that no job can offer real freedom—and, importantly, acknowledge that the ability to do what you love is supported by a class of low-wage workers, whose creativity is ignored if not actively discouraged—we can see the depth of art’s compatibility with the violent hierarchies that shape the wider world. The art sector is less the exception than the rule, and treating it otherwise is a political dead end. Instead, art workers need to understand ourselves as working in solidarity with all other workers—those struggling against their employers across industries, from coffee shops to prestige magazines, from the museum to the Amazon warehouse. We have to change the rules—and the only way to do that is together.

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