Art Gallery Of Ontario Strike Revealed A Class Divide

Workers at the Art Gallery of Ontario went back to their jobs Tuesday, selling tickets, moving art and making shows after a month-long strike that resolved little and points to a deep class divide at the gallery.

The 400 members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union had been on strike since March 26, after they rejected a management offer totalling 10.9 per cent in wage increases over four years. They settled for 11.4 per cent over four years, including a previously negotiated 1 per cent retroactive increase that covers 2022: In short, they made precious little financial gain by striking.

What they did get was stronger language on contracting out part-time jobs, forcing management to establish a joint committee to review the practice, which contributes to precarity for the gallery’s lowest paid workers. They also got street cred: Sometimes unions have to strike to remind employers they do have that power.

Meanwhile, the AGO suffered yet another prolonged – and this time quite unnecessary – closure.

Indeed, if the union made scant material progress, the strike looks mainly like a huge strategic error on the AGO’s part. With three years of accumulated deficits heading toward $9-million, the gallery couldn’t really afford to pay the employees more, but it turns out they weren’t really looking for more. They were looking for recognition that their lowest paid – box-office staff, food-service workers, gift-shop assistants and art handlers – many of them part-timers, need job security and hours.

In March, managers tried to force the situation with a final offer that backfired badly. Maybe management thought staff wouldn’t dare walk, but younger part-timers, in particular, were angry enough to reject the offer: Staff voted it down by 58 per cent. If you are only making $400 a week at a part-time job, strike pay – $250 a week for the first two weeks; $350 a week thereafter – may not seems like such a huge sacrifice. High executive salaries, such as the $404,000 paid to director Stephan Jost and posted on the Ontario Sunshine List for all to see, were also a major irritant.

Among higher paid union members who work with the artistic community – education programmers and assistant curators – there also seems to be lingering anger over the handling of the departure of Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush last fall, which was in part because of her pro-Palestinian social media posts. Staff felt they weren’t ever given a good accounting of how the gallery came to lose such a prominent curator; the public might well agree.

Art Gallery of Ontario’s associate curator of Indigenous art, Taqralik Partridge, departs

The strike, a first at the AGO, exposes the precarity not only of the part-time workers but also of the gallery’s budget. Increasingly, the gallery relies on self-generated revenue rather than government grants. While government aid went up during the pandemic, the general trend is downward. In 2006-07, 40 per cent of the AGO budget was covered by public grants; by 2018-2019, before the pandemic hit, that percentage had fallen to 28. Last year, grants stood at $25-million or 34 per cent of the budget, but that included $1-million in federal wage subsidies. For the year that ended March 31, the final numbers aren’t complete, but grants have dropped to $22.5-million.

And yet government – especially the Ontario government, which counts the AGO as one of its cultural agencies but has not raised its base grant since 2009-10 – demands a great deal of accountability for its cash. In 2020, the province’s auditor-general issued a value-for-money audit of the AGO that reveals a lot about the political climate in which the gallery must operate. It rapped the gallery on the knuckles for failing to provide analysis of why 60 per cent of exhibitions didn’t meet attendance targets, and said it wasn’t using established criteria to assess what would draw the most visitors, nor consulting the public as to its interests.

The AGO employee strike is another example of the paradox underlying today’s art museums

The underlying assumption – that value for money at the gallery means giving more people what they want – is never examined. If the AGO really wanted to juice those self-generated revenues it would be offering immersive Van Gogh and interactive Monet all year long.

Instead, what the gallery has done, very successfully, is increase both the number of visitors and their diversity by offering free admission to young people and cheap passes to adults. Back in 2020, the auditor-general was skeptical that this program, initially funded through philanthropy, was financially viable in the long term. Jost insists it can be sustained.

This weekend, the gallery will be free to all visitors. It’s a gesture of goodwill toward the public – after an episode where a little more goodwill toward staffers would have gone a long way.

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