As strike continues, Philadelphia Museum of Art announces Matisse exhibit will continue

As the opening of its blockbuster Matisse exhibition looms, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is grappling with the first staff-wide strike in its history, with picket lines, growing tension among those at the inside and colleagues outside, and the potential for serious institutional damage.

Members of the 180-worker PMA union, affiliated to AFSCME DC47, walked off the job on 26 September. Since then, the museum has remained open, with managers and non-union employees—the rest of its approximately 350 employees—doing everything from staffing the museum’s stores to maintaining the collection.

But as the strike continues, divisions between staff and management are deepening, and the prospect is growing that the exhibition of 140 works by Matisse, due to open to the public on October 20, will be severely crippled by the walkout. .

Like battlefields, collective bargaining creates a considerable amount of fog and smoke, making it extremely difficult to obtain accurate information. The PMA strike is no different, and it’s safe to say that both sides are suffering from cloudy visibility.

“It’s hard to be in an area where there’s too little information sharing, because it’s easy to feel like things are distorted and not have a lot of voice,” said an attacker, lamenting the lack of reliable information. a concern of all parties to the conflict.

READ MORE: What do art museum workers want? Five key issues at the heart of their strike.

On Saturday, the two sides have not spoken at the bargaining table since Friday, Sept. 23, according to the union and the museum. A federal mediator determined that the talks at this time would not be productive. The two sides are negotiating the union’s first contract since October 2020 after employees voted to unionize in the summer of 2020.

Given the snail’s pace of the talks, and now the complete absence of talks, some observers wonder if a timely opening of the Matisse show is even possible. The blockbuster exhibition – “Matisse in the 1930s” – is a singular exhibition in Philadelphia that also involves the Barnes Foundation, which houses a transformative mural of Matisse from 1932-1933, Dance. After Philadelphia, the exhibition travels to France. (The show is scheduled to end on January 29.)

The Matisse exhibit would be a big deal under any circumstances, but after two years of closures and the pandemic — and staff woes stemming from allegations of abuse, layoffs, and the current labor dispute — the museum has banked on Matisse to boost morale and to strengthen finances.

Now management insists the salon will open on time, no matter what the strike.

“We certainly expect it to open on schedule,” said Norman Keyes, the museum’s communications director, who serves as the institution’s spokesperson.

It’s probably safe to say that most museum visitors haven’t had to cross a picket line to see art. The Matisse show may well test their desire to do so.

Will he even be ready?

Museum officials have said repeatedly in recent days that Matisse is largely hanged and will be absolutely ready to open on the 20th.

But strikers who picket the institution say most of the staff setting up exhibits are on the picket lines. This raises the obvious question of who is installing the show? Usually, loan agreements, insurance requirements, and federal indemnification programs specify in great detail how valuable artwork entering an institution should be handled.

“Hanging a show like this is not something anyone can do and the PMA is not going to take chances and have people who are not qualified to do this kind of work” said a museum professional who did not want to be named because of a relationship with the art museum. “It’s a very monitored process. And the PMA Registrars and Curators take this very, very, very seriously. And wouldn’t open the show without the right people in place to hang the art.

Board members and senior staff would not comment on strike proceedings and the museum’s new director and general manager, Sacha Suda, who has only been in the job since September 26, is not part of the strike. negotiations, according to Keyes.

“The museum does not comment on the installation process for its special exhibit, or any strike contingency planning,” Keyes said in an official statement Friday.

Strikers on the picket line say they believe the museum hired outside art managers to install Matisse. As of Friday, more than half of the show had been suspended, they said. They also argued that couriers arriving from lending institutions were surprised by the presence of strikers and picket lines.

These couriers essentially guard works of art traveling from their home institutions. They monitor how the art is handled and determine if it is treated with the proper care.

“We had two couriers showing up today who we managed to intercept before they came in and they had no idea we were on strike,” a striker, who did not, said on Thursday. did not wish to be identified. The attacker said the couriers “come from other countries”. Another striker said the couriers and installers came from New York. The museum declined to comment.

The union also posted Instagram photos on its Twitter feed that show workers – some non-union PMA employees and others unidentified – hoisting and holding giant works by Matisse, apparently hanging them on the walls of the museum’s Dorrance galleries. of art. In one of the photographs, which could not be independently verified, a worker without gloves can be seen holding a huge sketch of Matisse – a fundamental violation of art handling procedures.

With the stakes so high, many are wondering why both sides aren’t at the negotiating table trying to resolve their differences, put on their gloves, and get back to business.

The answer depends on who you are talking to. The directors and members of the museum’s board of directors complain that they made a reasonable offer and the union refused to respond. Union leaders say that is not the case. In their view, management is simply trying to delay — a classic effort to weaken union resolve.

According to email exchanges between negotiators, the union has indeed responded to the museum’s latest offer by proposing changes; museum negotiators, attorneys for Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius LLP, declined to submit the offers to the museum’s board for review. According to union negotiators, the museum said only part of the union’s proposal could be sent back to the board for consideration.

The union refused to reduce its wage and health care proposal.

And there he sits. The main sticking points relate to wages and benefits, especially health care benefits.

The two sides, according to estimates provided by some city council members, are all $300,000 apart. Council member Cindy Bass called an apparent stalemate on the matter “ridiculous”.

The views of city and state officials and council members are important because the city owns the art museum building and leases the land to the museum corporation, a private, nonprofit organization. , for a pittance. The city also pays several million dollars a year for the museum’s utilities, provides a multi-million dollar annual grant, and benefits economically from the museum attracting visitors.

“It is essential that the management of the museum work with the members of [PMA Union] Local 397 must negotiate in good faith in order to reach an early resolution that both parties can agree to,” a city spokesperson said in a statement Friday. “As this strike continues, the city will continue to help facilitate discussions between the two parties so that both parties can reach an agreement that will benefit both the workers and the museum as a whole.”

On Wednesday, the entire Philadelphia State Senate delegation signed a letter to PMA trustees calling for a contract that would guarantee “family-supporting wages” and affordable health care. “It is not only fair, just and appropriate, but it is what allows PMA to retain the talented people who have helped bring the museum to its current position of international renown,” they wrote. “We urge the board and management of the PMA to quickly agree a contract that resolves the issues made public by the union throughout the duration of this strike.”

On Friday, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said he would join the strikers on Saturday and called on PMA management “to get back to the negotiating table and negotiate in good faith.”

The museum has always maintained that it was negotiating in good faith and that it remained ready to continue the talks. Board members said, in the words of one, “that this institution will remain committed to mounting and exhibiting as planned and will do so successfully under difficult circumstances.”

Both the union and management argue that there is no stalemate. On Friday, no formal trading session was scheduled.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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