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Overlapping Concerns: BMA Union Protest Coincides with ‘Guarding the Art’ Exhibition 

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While Baltimore artists, influencers, and reporters shuffled into the Baltimore Museum of Art for a preview of Guarding The Art, an upcoming exhibition that the BMA’s very own security guards curated in collaboration with curatorial staff, workers stood on the steps of the museum demanding their union be recognized.

On Tuesday, March 22, a group of seven workers who are part of the ongoing effort to unionize the Baltimore Museum of Art held signs with slogans such as “1 Voice, 1 Union” and “No More Delays”; one sign had “Guarding the Art” changed to “Guarding the Guards.” They were demanding that the BMA’s director, Christopher Bedford, sign the union’s election agreement. Bedford, the union stressed, has had two months to sign the agreement, which is needed in order to allow a union election organized by the city. 

Demonstrating outside of the museum was Security Officer Ben Bjork, one of the 17 members of security who helped curate the 25-piece exhibit. One of the pieces Bjork chose for Guarding The Art was “50 Dozen,” a sculpture by Jeremy Alden made up of 600 pencils glued together to form a chair. 

“It’s an exhibit with the goal of highlighting how important security guards are to the institution of the BMA. That they do more than just guard the art, they understand it and appreciate it, and are very valuable to the museum,” Bjork saidBut what is even more important to Bjork than the chance to contribute to an exhibition is the opportunity to have more of a say over how the BMA treats its present and future workers. 

“A lot of times, it feels like security is working at a different institution than some of the curators or higher-up people,” said Bjork, who has been with the museum for almost four years. “The union campaign has allowed me to actually work with people from other departments in a way that I didn’t necessarily even get to do in the Guarding The Art show because we’re actually organizing—like, collaborating together.”

The Baltimore Museum of Art workers’ demands include “job security, fair and livable wages, staff advancement for all,” as well as more involvement in decision making, more administrative accountability, and “manageable workloads that sustain safe working conditions and a healthy lifestyle.” They also want their union to be a wall-to-wall union that includes all of the museum’s workers, including security.

“It’s really important for us to have a wall-to-wall organizing unit, because that would allow there not to be a divide between different departments,” Bjork said. “One thing that we found is that we all had a lot of the same issues or problems at the museum, because a lot of the issues here are systemic, like at any big institution.”

Security Officer Micah Murphy, who joined the BMA after the union drive began but quickly signed a card, stressed the importance of security being part of the union.

“We want all the employees—all the eligible employees—to be in one bargaining unit,” Murphy said. “I mean, to me, it would be absurd to have a union without the security guards. We’re the largest department, from what I understand, and we are not the most privileged department—let me put it that way.”

 

Image courtesy BMA union's AFSCME representative
The City is offering to take responsibility for conducting a fair and just union election process. To deny us a fair union election process that would allow us to be represented as one unit and one union, guards and non-guards alike, due to a misunderstanding and distrust of standard union election procedures is egregious and offensive.
Excerpt from a March 22 letter from the BMA Union to the BMA Board of Trustees

Tuesday’s demonstration occurred at the same time as the press preview of Guarding The Art, an exhibition that has already received a great deal of positive national press due to its unique, worker-focused concept and message recognizing the creative contributions of museum staff members that are typically not appreciated.

“​​For the first time in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s history, the people who protect the art have selected the art,” a BMA press release announced. “The exhibition highlights the unique perspectives of the officers and their reflections on the featured objects are drawn from their many hours in the galleries, their interactions with visitors, and their personal stories and interests.”

Guarding The Art is the latest in a series of grand gestures by the BMA since Christopher Bedford became the director. When he arrived in 2016, he appeared intent on shaking things up and capturing the social justice zeitgeist of the moment—from the Black Lives Matter movement to #MeToo and into the George Floyd Uprising. 

He was clearly on a very public mission. The museum showed significantly more exhibitions each year, putting greater demands on the staff, while also keeping the museum in the news, broadcasting an agitated sort of ambition. Black and brown artists were more frequently the focus of exhibitions and, in general, appeared on the museum’s walls more often; there were more nods to communities outside of the museum’s moneyed members—all positive changes broadcast publicly, but not an internal or systemic change. 

While many have applauded the director’s initiatives, others have questioned Bedford’s sincerity, viewing this directorship as a resume-builder on the way to a “bigger, better” museum. (When he was originally hired, he said he would stay five years.) In 2020, the BMA announced it would only acquire art made by women so it could “rectify centuries of imbalance”—an impossibility in a collection of nearly 100,000 historic works created mostly by men—which garnered widespread national acclaim in dozens of articles. However, it turned out that in 2020, the museum collected 65 works by 49 female-identifying artists.

Also in 2020, Bedford attempted to sell (or “deaccession”) three pieces of art by white male artists (Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden) from the museum collection during temporary, COVID-related changes to normally tight regulations around the practice designated by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) designed to keep struggling museums from closing or laying off staff. Instead, the BMA announced a plan to generate $65 million for “care of the collection,” new acquisitions, diversity and equity programming, and an increase in staff salaries. When some donors threatened to pull their money and past presidents of the AAMD issued a letter requesting the museum cancel the deaccessioning, the paintings were pulled off the market on the day of the sale. The museum still was able to raise security staff salaries that year from $13.50 to $15 an hour after fundraising specifically for that purpose, leaving many asking why the museum’s ability to provide raises had been so closely tied to talking points about the deaccessioning.

 

When the BMA Union’s organizing committee went public in September 2021, its statement seemed to challenge Bedford and the BMA’s progressive bonafides: “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.”

Complicating things is the fact that Bedford is on his way out of the BMA. Last month, he announced he had accepted a new job at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). His last day as BMA director is June 3, 2022. SFMOMA, workers stressed, is already unionized. For some BMA workers, Bedford could recognize their union and finally walk the walk on all the “equity” and “diversity” talk he deployed to define his reign at the BMA. 

Earlier this month, the BMA posted a message on its website about the unionization effort, saying that the museum would not agree to an election overseen by the city because of the power they claimed this gives a third-party arbitrator. Namely, this kind of arbitration would enable the wall-to-wall union to exist and has been a common practice in Baltimore City. The BMA suggested instead that the workers’ union election should go through the National Labor Relations Board instead—a nonstarter for the workers because the NLRB’s rules don’t allow a wall-to-wall union that would include the security guards. 

A letter to the BMA’s board from the workers questioned the BMA’s concerns about third-party arbitration. “The City is offering to take responsibility for conducting a fair and just union election process. We trust them to facilitate the election even if that means using an accredited third-party arbitrator who specializes in conducting union elections,” the letter read. “To deny us a fair union election process that would allow us to be represented as one unit and one union, guards and non-guards alike, due to a misunderstanding and distrust of standard union election procedures is egregious and offensive.”

When reached for comment, the BMA provided an email written by Bedford that reiterates the museum’s stances on third-party arbitration and instead, suggested instead going through the NLRB (which will not include security guards), but also stated that the third-party arbitrator option is not completely off the table: “Given that we are open to a single union at the BMA and to trying to find a path forward that would allow for this possibility, we will meet again with legal counsel to explore further the third-party arbitrator route,” the email said, referencing a March 22 board meeting where Michael Huber, the Chief of Staff from the Mayor’s Office, expressed the city’s desire to discuss the options for a non-NLRB-run secret ballot election.

One union member, who requested anonymity, said Bedford seems to be trying to run out the clock instead of making a decision. “Bedford’s using distraction. So whether he wants the union or not, he’s saying, ‘Oh, it’s the board.’ And then he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s the city,’” the worker said. “And he leaves in June. So, we can also just see his own delaying tactics.”

As BmoreArt reported last year, BMA “workers find it hard to reconcile the fact that their director is paid an annual salary of more than $400,000 (according to the latest tax filings) while hourly workers’ pay just recently went up to $15 an hour. From fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020, Bedford’s salary increased from $403,936 to $438,297—the difference is more than what one (full-time, $15 an hour) security guard makes annually.”

 

If Bedford wants to show how important we are to the institution, that's the only real way that he can do it: By allowing us to go forward with unionization.
Ben Bjork

Low wages and poor worker conditions have long been an issue at the BMA and at most museums across the country. Some readers may recall back in 2016 when a local news segment at the BMA was briefly interrupted by Ian, a BMA security officer. When Ian appeared on camera and was asked what he did at the museum, he said, “I work 40 hours a week and I live below the poverty line. And I advocate for living wages and workers’ rights.” 

In September 2021, the BMA union campaign went public but it had been in the works since summer 2020. The pandemic made the need for a union even more apparent, Bjork explained.

“We were really grateful—or at least I was—that when the museum closed down, they kept security on the payroll. They didn’t lay us off or anything, which I was really grateful for—to have a job throughout the pandemic,” Bjork said. “But then when [the BMA] reopened, it was really clear that all of the decisions that were made at the museum were not made by people who had to come into work anymore; they were all made by people who worked from home. And a lot of times, they were really slow to shut the museum down or to respond to COVID-19 on the day-to-day.”

Capacity restrictions and other responses to COVID-19 by the museum were, Bjork explained, “impossible to enforce as a security guard” yet fell on the guards to enforce. The logistics and planning for reducing capacity did not involve security guards’ input.

“The divide between the leadership and the actual workers who had to come in? It’s really stark. And that’s definitely how this organizing started,” he said. “With the timing of the Guarding The Art show, it just reminds me, again, how excluded from the conversation we are still.” 

Security officer Murphy stressed that the union benefits the BMA too.

“I think because of that pandemic, and ‘the great resignation’ and everything, they should be concerned about staff retention,” Murphy said. “And the union would be one way to improve that. Certainly from the museum’s perspective, it makes sense to have a union I think because they want to keep staff on, right?”

Bjork said that some of the security officers who worked on Guarding The Art (which was two years in the making) have since left the BMA: “A third of the guards who are part of Guarding The Art don’t work at the museum anymore.”

The significance of Guarding The Art is not lost on Bjork, but organizing with your fellow workers beats co-curating with the institution that won’t recognize your union.

“I’m proud of the show and I’m proud of the work that a lot of my colleagues did in it and I think it’s pretty cool that we finally got to have a creative impact on the museum,” Bjork said. “But I also think that the only way that our job would meaningfully improve is if we were able to organize and if Bedford wants to show how important we are to the institution, that’s the only real way that he can do it: By allowing us to go forward with unionization.”

 

This story was originally published by The Real News Network on March 24, 2022, and is published in partnership with BmoreArt.

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