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.”