Some employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art don’t believe the institution is committed to protecting its workers from abusive bosses, and that concern could fuel a fledgling labor movement in the art world.
In a story published Friday, one month after the museum came under fire for protecting an executive after numerous complaints about his conduct, The Inquirer reported on a similar situation concerning another former museum leader.
Workers had filed complaints to management against the museum’s retail director, James Cincotta, saying he slapped, punched, and verbally abused employees. But after an internal investigation, Cincotta kept his job for two more years. He was let go in 2018.
The result, The Inquirer story said, is that workers felt that management’s inaction was “emblematic of a culture that protected senior staff at the expense of lower-tier workers.”
Workers’ rights have increasingly become a rallying cry in the art world — part of a broader trend of young people seeking collective action for labor protections.
Employees at institutions like New York’s Guggenheim and New museums, as well as the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, have joined unions in the last few years. They cite issues like low wages for jobs with high educational requirements, which contributes to a lack of diversity in the field; outsize pay disparities between executives and the rank and file; and a move toward more part-time and contract work, rather than full-time positions with benefits and other protections.
Museum workers have also turned to new forms of organizing, outside of traditional unions. Last year, museum workers began a pay transparency movement, using a Google spreadsheet to crowd-source salaries and benefits, and driving workers in other sectors to follow suit. A Philadelphia Art Museum curator, Michelle Millar Fisher, was part of the group that started the spreadsheet, which has developed into a grassroots labor collective called Art+Museum Transparency.
There have already been signs of solidarity among workers at the Art Museum: Hundreds of current and former museum staffers signed a petition backing the women who spoke out against Joshua Helmer, the former executive alleged to have abused his power by entering into romantic relationships with subordinates. After a New York Times story detailed the allegations, museum staffers wore “We Believe Women” buttons.
High-profile scandals can lead to workplace organizing, worker advocates say — whether it’s union organizing or collective action around an issue, the way tech workers at Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have fought for and won demands at their workplace.
“When there’s a high-profile scandal in any kind of workplace or institution, what usually happens is it peels away the veneer that management and the institution itself know what it’s doing, and that they have the best intentions for both the organization and the people that work there," said Randa Ruge, a health-care organizer at the International Association of Machinists.
Consequently, she said, "workers will want to take it into their own hands to make improvements and speak up for themselves.”
A similar scandal sparked a union drive at the Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ health organization in Center City. Workers accused medical director Robert Winn of sexual misconduct and said management did not address the situation. They voted to unionize in 2017, the same year the allegations were reported by Philadelphia Weekly.
The security guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who are employed by Allied Universal, unionized in 2009.
Museum officials have said they are working with outside experts to review the museum’s workplace culture, “including a review of past incidents, general work environment, and existing policies, programs and training activities.”
“The goal,” a statement said, "is to build upon our commitment to providing an environment where every member of [the] staff feels secure, respected, and valued, and where issues that arise are handled not only appropriately but as swiftly as possible.”