Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Union pickets at Art Gallery of Ontario

I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario this evening to hear a talk by Sarah Thornton—more on that later—and was half-surprised, half-not to see a picket line outside of the gallery. The picketers held signs like "AIG:AGO" and handed out flyers describing their concerns: namely that because the AGO received $18.6 million from the Ontario Government on April 8—a mere two days after laying off 23 full time staff—the AGO should now rescind the layoffs. The picket was organized by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents several of the laid-off staff.

According to the OPSEU, the layoff notices were served in an extremely undignified manner. Well, this may already be apparent to those who know the layoffs were announced just hours before one of the AGO's biggest fundraisers. But here's some of the quotes they offer:

"After 13 years, I was literally asked to put down my tools and was out of the building within 2 hours." - anonymous employee

"They are trying to save money and want volunteers to replace paid staff; in an institution devoted to an 'extraordinary visitor welcome' it is ridiculous to replace professional staff with volunteers." - employee with 29 years service

The OPSEU also notes that many professionals key to museum operations were laid off, including conservators, photographers, librarians, installation technicians and more. Two publicists were laid off, making me wonder how effectively the AGO will be able to spin these events. The woman I spoke to at the picket said many of these professionals are being replaced by part-time contract positions.

The OPSEU also notes that while senior management has instituted a wage freeze, it still takes up one-sixth of the wage pie in the organization. They also point out that Kirsten Ferguson, Chief of Staff at the AGO, had a $60,000 salary increase between 2007 and 2008 -- a raise of 50%. CEO Matthew Teitelbaum, for his part, had a wage increase of $20,000 from 2007 to 2008, or roughly 9%.

In my view, this is an unfortunate event for all parties—the museum, the employees, the union and the public. Who's to blame? It's a complex issue, but I would say this whole episode reeks of planning gaps at the senior level. Yes, there's a recession going on. Yes, contract employees are cheaper than permanent. But if your focus is excellence and the public trust, well, it's time to fundraise a little harder, people, and figure out the budgets to keep the organization responsible and functional. You did it for the building. Now do it for the people who make the building tick.

I'll be watching to see how the new AGO board president—announced today of all days—will affect the situation. The new prez is none other than Tony Gagliano, he of Luminato's cash-flush coffers. My first thought was, will this mean the AGO will do more Luminato stuff? My second: Well, at least Gagliano is good at raising money. We'll see what happens.

Image from OPSEU


Gabby said...

Maybe Matthew Teitelbaum could use the $25,000 he's receiving for the BMo/MOCCA Art Prize to re-hire some of the installation officers and librarians?

Gabby said...

Sorry, it's actually $20,000, but accompanied by a gala, which we art people love.

Leah Sandals said...

Oh indeedy. Yeah, it's not good timing for receiving that award, for sure. I do wonder what will happen there.

I forgot to mention another way this all sucks for the AGO -- declining morale for the staff who do stay on or who are hired on. I remember the first few times I went to the new AGO, the staff from security to ticket people seemed really happy and helpful. It could well have been just "new building smell" but I can imagine that's going to be a lot harder for staff to offer now, wondering if they're on the chopping block next.

Gabby said...

No kidding. I have a friend who works very part time at the library who waits week to week to see if she still has a job to go to. Not terribly good for visitor service.

Anonymous said...

hey ladies,
i am one of those affected by the AGO's actions, and it is still baffling to me how all this is happening with all the new money coming in. but i have a question, can you name one arts organization whose staff ARE happy? seriously, what's so fucked about the arts is that it's that sector that is one of the first to stand up for equality, whose left wing ideology is to be commended, that can amass rallies and protests at the drop of a hat at the first sign of inequality in society. but the internal structure of most arts organizations are so bad that they make some utlra right despotic govts look good!!!! almost everyone has a director that makes in the $100,000 when the rest of the staff are living close to the minimum wage. why stop at the AGO? you mention mocca, let's start there! i hear there new director fired most of the staff when he started and replaced them with friends he brought FROM OTTAWA. were talking about ADMIN ASSISTANTS here, surely there was someone in TO who can shuffle paperwork. SURELY!!!! so maybe a more comprehensive study of labour use and abuse in the arts is something worth writing about?

Leah Sandals said...

Hey There,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, you're right that many arts organizations are total headaches to work for. I remember when the National Gallery was being sued by one of its own curators last year and the atmosphere was described as "toxic" in one report. I thought... well... how is that different from so many other museums and galleries in Canada? At the same time, I know a lot of people across many industries hate their workplaces--or there are a lot of unequal workplaces out there, basically--so I'm hesitant about whether it's worse than elsewhere.

Still, with all the emphasis by the Ontario government and others on the "creative economy" it would certainly be extra-worthwhile to take a look at whether these are equitable working environments... and whether, as you point out, they are ever capable of walking the creative/egalitarian talk, or whether abuses are happening.

What do you think?

L.M. said...

anon is so right on this point.

A side issue is the amount of volunteer labour that is expected from part-time employees in artists run centers. In those cases, it's not that the board members or director is making a huge amount of money in comparison, but the balance of power is definitely top heavy and the free labour is taken for granted.

Leah Sandals said...

Good point LM.... I have observed this many times myself.

There was actually a debate on a freelance writers list recently about these types of topics, more in terms of leaning on interns rather than paid reporters but I think it's an extension of this whole ethos.

Michael Wheeler said...

This is pretty darn depressing. To rub salt in these wounds, "fake protesters" were part of the evening's entertainment at this recent fundraiser.

I think these people live in an alternate universe.

How do they think it is okay to invest millions of dollars of public funds (and private money exchanged for charitable tax receipts which is also a form of government subsidization) to build fancy palaces that fire their employees hours before their funding increases while housing huge shindigs for the rich and influential?

First they convince governments to invest in these Super-Institutions, then they realize they can't afford the associated costs and they have to and a lot of careers as a result, then get more public money, then decide to fire everyone anyhow, and in the midst of it have a really massive party that makes fun of everyone who was fighting to keep their job.

Wow Richard Florida, sure am glad we traded in that social compact for this creative one. Runs like a charm.

Leah Sandals said...

This is pretty darn depressing. To rub salt in these wounds, "fake protesters" were part of the evening's entertainment at this recent fundraiser.Michael, you are so right... very painful juxtaposition there. Also agree with your

Wow Richard Florida, sure am glad we traded in that social compact for this creative one. Runs like a charm.Part of the problem with the "creative city" focus is that it often neglects that yes, even creative workers need social services and health care and job security. Yep!

As for the ultrarich partying thing, I do note there are useful ways the higher tax brackets contribute to the arts. It's part of the job of museums and cultural institutions nowadays to work those cash flows to their advantage. BUT as you point out, it needs to truly benefit the public trust, not just fund more parties.... AND it needs to be sensitively organized.

Michael Wheeler said...

Yes of course you are right. My theatre company relies on big donations from wealthy patrons to survive as I'm sure almost every sustainable arts organization does.

Maybe I should be more explicit:

The reason Tony Gagliano is now president of AGO's board is that he is an exceptionally good fundraiser.

He raised $10 Million for AGO from his own wealthy friends and family just before the provincial gov't handed over $22.5 Million to Luminato, which you rightly pointed out he also co-chairs. He also championed the failed and flawed Canada Prize which the Federal government (briefly) pledged $25 million to.

Anyhow, all of this money is a public trust. It's why either people didn't have to pay taxes because they donated to it or they took our taxes and write a big cheque to the organizations whose budgets his boards approve.

Recent events call into question whether there is a sufficient understanding of the needs and ecology of the Toronto arts community by these wealthy but clueless boards of directors that have co-opted the vast majority of these public funds.

Leah Sandals said...

Totally agreed, Michael...

esp on this summary of yours: "Recent events call into question whether there is a sufficient understanding of the needs and ecology of the Toronto arts community by these wealthy but clueless boards of directors that have co-opted the vast majority of these public funds."