Art Gallery of Ontario closes as more than 400 workers go on strike

More than 400 workers at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), members of Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/SEFPO) Local 535, went on strike Tuesday (26 March) over low wages amid the rising cost of living. As a result, the museum has been closed to the public since Tuesday.

According to a union statement, negotiations with museum administrators broke down after ten months of meetings. The union says that the AGO’s latest offer fails to make meaningful improvements on key issues, including wage increases and protections against contracting out for precarious part-time workers.

“As public service employees, we were hit right in the paycheck during the pandemic,” Paul Ayers, president of OPSEU/SEFPO Local 535, said in a statement. “While we struggled through a public health crisis and three years of unconstitutional wage freezes, elite executives made hundreds of thousands. We need a deal that helps us stay afloat in a cost-of-living crisis in the most expensive city in Canada—and the AGO’s latest offer falls short of that.”

Striking Members of the union include assistant curators, archivists, food and hospitality staff, researchers, technicians, carpenters, electricians, instructors, designers and visitor services staff. Rallying outside the museum on Tuesday, they held signs with messages including “Show Me the Monet”, “Modern Art, Medieval Wages” and “The Arts matter, so do we!”

Striking workers and their supporters rally outside the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on 26 March Ontario Public Service Employees Union, via Facebook

“Many of these workers are artists in their own right that contribute to the cultural fabric of the city. Devaluing artists is not how we show the public that the arts matter,” the president of OPSEU/SEFPO, JP Hornick, said in a statement. “The AGO is sending the message that as a prominent cultural institution, it prioritizes the bottom line over peoples’ livelihood.”

At play in the strike are not only the cost of living crisis and low wages across the Canadian art world, but also a provincial struggle between labour and union-busting Ontario premiere Doug Ford. The cultural sector is not immune from this ongoing battle, as evidenced by the11-week strike by workers at TVO (TV Ontario) that ended last November over similar issues of low wages and temporary contract work.

The impasse with workers over pay and benefits also comes as the AGO prepares to spend handsomely on a major building project. The museum will expand by 3,700 sq. m with the construction of a new, C$100m ($73.6m) contemporary art gallery; C$35m ($25.8m) of the budget for that project was donated by Canada Goose founder Dani Reiss.

While 2019 was a very different time, it’s worth noting that that year’s strike at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) came on the heels of an announcement of a C$40m gift for the new building from the Chan family. Based on a 2017 tax return reported by the Pacific Association of Artist-run Centres, which publicly supported the striking workers, 202 of 212 of VAG staff earned less than C$80,000 per year, while the director’s salary was C$350,000.

“The AGO Foundation paid out its chief executive officer, Stephan Jost, over C$390,000 ($287,000) in ‘consulting’ fees between 2020 and 2021 alone—on top of his C$406,000 ($299,000) salary,” Ayers says. “Yet there’s no money for wages? The gallery can absolutely afford to bring forward a better offer.”

In a comment emailed to The Art Newspaper, an AGO spokesperson said: “The AGO is hopeful that we will reach a negotiated agreement with OPSEU soon, remaining ready to negotiate and fully available to work constructively with employee representatives to reach a reasonable and fair agreement.”

The strike follows on the heels of a scandal and demands for accountability around the departure of First Nations curator Wanda Nanibush last November, allegedly for her outspoken support of Palestine.

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