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Features / February 26, 2019

After Vancouver Strike, More Arts-Workplace Concerns Surface

Action by Vancouver Art Gallery workers puts spotlight on urgent labour issues at museums and art galleries across Canada
A sign on the picket line at the Vancouver Art Gallery during a recent strike. Some workers say that even post-strike, significant concerns remain. A sign on the picket line at the Vancouver Art Gallery during a recent strike. Some workers say that even post-strike, significant concerns remain.
A sign on the picket line at the Vancouver Art Gallery during a recent strike. Some workers say that even post-strike, significant concerns remain. A sign on the picket line at the Vancouver Art Gallery during a recent strike. Some workers say that even post-strike, significant concerns remain.

On February 12, a strike of more than 200 Vancouver Art Gallery workers ended. But at least one longtime curator at the gallery says he still has concerns about how workers are being treated there. And the ensuing conversations are raising questions about how much other galleries in Canada need to improve on workplace health as well.

Over the past year, studies have been conducted about the work environments at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, to name just two major Canadian art galleries. Staff at other art galleries say they are concerned about wages keeping pace with rising costs of living. Other workers, speaking anonymously, have said the “reputation economy” in Canada’s arts galleries and museums is part of what keeps bad workplaces an open secret in the sector.

The leader of the Cultural Human Resources Council—a national organization with a 24-year history of tracking arts workplace issues—says harassment and bullying in particular is an “urgent” concern in many arts workplaces in Canada. The Cultural Human Resources Council, in fact, is just coming forward this week with new recommendations on improving arts workplaces—and it is working on more right now. But will those reports be enough to solve longtime labour concerns in Canada’s art gallery and museum sector? Only time will tell.

“Workload would be the biggest issue—we keep doing more ambitious projects with the same size staff,” says one curator.

Vancouver, Post-Strike

Curator Grant Arnold has worked at the Vancouver Art Gallery since 1994—just after he graduated from UBC with his master’s in art history. Over the years, he’s curated exhibitions on many prominent Canadian artists, including Ken Lum, Owen Kydd, Mark Lewis and Fred Herzog, and co-curated ones on Rodney Graham and Liz Magor, among other creators.

Arnold has seen a lot of changes at the gallery in 25 years. But the shifts he’s seen in the workplace in the last 8 or 9 years in particular have prompted him to speak out. During the recent Vancouver Art Gallery strike, Arnold spoke at length with the Art + Labor podcast about his concerns. And after the strike, Arnold tells Canadian Art he’s still worried about his workplace.

“There is a real dissatisfaction lingering after the strike,” Arnold tells Canadian Art. “I think workload would be the biggest issue—we keep doing more ambitious projects with the same size staff.…. A lot of our AV and conservation and prep and registrations staff have found their workload increase dramatically as the gallery tries to do more and more, and do projects with a higher profile as it attempts to raise funds for a new building.”

Arnold also thinks the usual feedback mechanisms between workers and management regarding typical labour issues have broken down. “Most of the staff feels that the relationship with the HR department is adversarial,” says Arnold. “There’s a feeling that the administration’s devaluing of the staff is played out in part in our relationship with the HR department.”

For its part, the Vancouver Art Gallery administration says it appreciates workers at the gallery and all they do—and is glad a resolution was reached to end the recent strike.

“The Vancouver Art Gallery has an incredibly talented, dedicated and passionate staff and we are so pleased that an amicable resolution was reached with CUPE 15,” says Vancouver Art Gallery director Kathleen Bartels in an emailed statement. “I’m also glad to have everyone back at the Gallery, and so appreciate the hard work and dedication I see at every level and in every department as we get ready to open and celebrate a new season.”

At the same time, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s leader implies that resolving longstanding issues will take time. “We know the days ahead will be a time of mutual healing as we work together to ensure the Gallery’s long-term future and the well-being of all Gallery staff members,” says Bartels via email.

“Toxic” work environments are found in multiple art galleries and museums across Canada, says a gallery director.

A Community, and Sectoral, Issue

Shaun Dacey, director at the Richmond Art Gallery—30 minutes’ drive from the Vancouver Art Gallery—has spent most of his career in the region. Prior to beginning his current post in 2016, he was a curator at the Contemporary Art Gallery downtown. And prior to that he was director/curator of Access Gallery and public programmer at the Burnaby Art Gallery. Early in his career, he was also an intern at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

During the recent Vancouver Art Gallery strike, Dacey wrote a public letter to the VAG board and management in which he called the work culture there “disrespectful and toxic,” and asked for real action on this issue.

Now, Dacey tells Canadian Art that he, and others in the community, remain skeptical of the gallery’s commitment to an improved workplace—though also more hopeful in some ways, too.

“There seems to be a general sense by the community that nothing has actually been resolved beyond a few extra dollars pay (which is good),” Dacey said last week via email regarding the end of the strike at the Vancouver Art Gallery. “From an outside perspective, VAG management at this point has made no effort to confront the larger systemic claims that so many made public during the strike. Perhaps the potential bright spot in all this is the overwhelming community support of the strike. I hope it strikes a chord with the board and trustees to attempt to create change within.”

Dacey also points out that the problem of unhealthy work environments in the arts extends well beyond just one museum or art gallery in Canada. “I don’t think we should simply pinpoint the VAG on these sort of toxic, heartless work environments. This is par for the course in arts institutions across Canada,” Dacey writes. “[There’s] a complete lack of managerial skill sets by those running some of our most prestigious and renowned art museums and organizations. There is really an opportunity now as a national arts community to have some hard conversation, to be vulnerable, and to begin to challenge the way our institutions are treating us as employees. So I’m hopeful.”

A 2018 survey found that almost half of National Gallery employees didn’t think management would try to address workplace concerns.

Workplace Studies Surface

Over the past year, studies have surfaced regarding workplace issues at the Remai Modern and the National Gallery of Canada as well.

Ongoing reporting by the CBC’s Guy Quenneville in Saskatoon indicates the Remai Modern has also been grappling with workplace concerns—though it hasn’t disclosed yet exactly what they are. As Quenneville details in a February 21 article, at least two internal studies have already been commissioned on workplace issues at the Remai—and the institution only opened in October 2017.

One study involved the City of Saskatoon’s “in-house ombudsperson Claudia Hemani,” Quenneville reports. The other study “was commissioned last fall from Logia Consulting, which describes itself as ‘a leadership consulting and coaching company.’ Logia’s report included ‘recommendations for building a healthy workplace at Remai Modern.’” Quenneville also quotes outgoing Remai Modern board chair Scott Verity as stating the board “seriously considered that [first] report and began the important work of bringing resolution to the concerns that have been raised.”

A February 2018 internal survey at the National Gallery of Canada, obtained by the Ottawa Citizen in May 2018, also indicates some labour discontent at Canada’s leading national art collection.

“Not even one in five employees of the National Gallery of Canada feel that its senior management makes effective and timely decisions, suggests a confidential internal survey,” Peter Hum of the Ottawa Citizen reported. He added: “Only 45 per cent of respondents said they had confidence in senior management’s leadership ‘to achieve (the gallery’s) stated goals and priorities,’ while 20 per cent were neutral and 35 per cent disagreed.”

Communication difficulties with management were also a concern for NGC workers. “Only 46 per cent of respondents agreed that there is ‘open and honest two-way communication’ between management and staff,” the Ottawa Citizen reported. “And only 31 per cent agreed that ‘essential information flows effectively from senior management to staff.’”

And perhaps most concerning of all, almost half of National Gallery employees didn’t think management would try to address workplace concerns. “Given the statement ‘I believe that senior management will try to address concerns raised in this survey,’ 45 per cent or respondents disagreed, 26 per cent remained neutral and just 29 per cent agreed,” the Citizen reported.

“We are all precarious labourers, even in institutions—yes, we are hired, but in many ways we are like consultants, relying on our reputation everywhere we go,” says a gallery and museum worker.

Wages and the Reputation Economy

Even when gallery workplaces are relatively healthy, staff can remain concerned about the long term.

“The main concern that I hear from our members is keeping wages up with the rising cost of living,” says Aaron Knight, president of OPSEU Local 535, which represents unionized workers at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He adds, “Most of our past pressing concerns such as job security or contracting out have been dealt with in the last few rounds of contract negotiations while our wage increases have been below the average for bargaining units in this province.”

Knight says whether part-time or full-time, wage concerns remain a key issue for his colleagues: “Many of our members, like many people in this province, are finding it harder and harder to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads,” says Knight via email.

And often the very structure of the arts and culture sector can make it difficult to even assert the reality of workplace difficulties in public in the first place.

“We live in a reputation economy. It is not the kind of economy in which we want to be profiled as either a complainant or as someone who has been accused,” an art gallery and museum worker, whose name was withheld by request, told Canadian Art in 2016. “We are all precarious labourers, even in institutions—yes, we are hired, but in many ways we are like consultants, relying on our reputation everywhere we go.”

This art gallery and museum worker, who has worked at various sites in Canada, also noted that the sector’s emphasis on reputation can entrench museum leaders who might generate good gallery PR, but who handle staff poorly out of public view. “Reputation economies can quickly devolve into a focus on optics, and a focus on abstract ideas ‘vision’ or ‘institution-building’ divorced from actual interpersonal relationships, the site where these ethical challenges take place,” the worker told Canadian Art.

“Effective oversight is about tackling issues directly that are difficult and complicated. Saying things like ‘this person may not be nice, but they get things done’ is an abdication of that responsibility. It also demonstrates the moment we are in, romanticizing ‘tough boss’ or ‘charismatic leader’ personas—at the cost of accepting toxic influences, and of accepting very limited ideas of what good leadership can be.”

Can respectful workplaces become the norm in the arts sector? One organization is trying to make it happen.

Trying for Solutions

Susan Annis, director of the Cultural Human Resources Council in Ottawa, has been working on HR issues in the Canada’s arts sector since the 1990s. Annis says that right now issues of harassment, bullying and discrimination in cultural workplaces are “urgent”—and there is growing awareness they need to be addressed.

“It’s urgent… and chronic,” Annis tells Canadian Art. On the plus side, “I think that people are more and more conscious of it; they want to prevent it.”

To that end, Annis and her colleagues at the Cultural Human Resources Council launched a special project last year called Respectful Workplaces in the Arts. Funded by the Canada Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage, the three-year project aims to, as the website puts it, “ensure that artists and arts organizations across Canada have the tools, resources and training to prevent harassment of any kind, and build respectful workplaces as the norm in the cultural sector.”

This month, for instance, the project released quick reference guides “to assist cultural organizations with implementing and sustaining compliance with harassment legislation by province and territory.”

And this week, the CHRC is releasing a new report by Canadian arts consultant Jeanne LeSage. In it, LeSage—who has worked at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, and Royal Opera House Muscatrecommends that the Canadian arts sector “establish a confidential, independent, third-party sector-wide resource for the complainants, respondents and witnesses of workplace harassment,” among other measures.

Part of LeSage’s new recommendations, like the anonymous tipline idea, are aimed at supporting arts and culture workers in reporting workplace issues safely. And another part of the new recommendations are aimed at helping arts and culture employers navigate workplace investigations and developing needed policies.

“We need a way to help employers respond to [workplace complaints] with investigations, because that can be a huge expense—it can really knock a small organization sideways… and legal costs can be even higher,” says Annis.

Among the other recommendations in the new CHRC report out this week are developing some means of providing financial support to individuals for legal fees, and creating a complaint response checklist or decision tree for employers.

“There was considerable feedback that most employers do not have the expertise, time or structure to carry out a fair, unbiased investigation [of workplace complaints] and that employers should be encouraged and incentivized to carry out third-party investigations when appropriate,” LeSage writes in her report. She recommends, for instance, that a list be created of lawyers, mediators and investigators familiar with each arts sector so that those resources are at the ready when needed.

Creation of a code of conduct for arts organizations—art galleries and museums included—is also crucial moving ahead, says Annis. “A code of conduct is a really good way of establishing a respectful workplace,” says Annis. She points out such codes have been developed for the screen-based industries in Canada, as well as for the music industry—but don’t yet exist for visual arts or performance arts in Canada.

Back in Vancouver, curator Grant Arnold says that he, too, is aware of sector-wide issues, and the need to resolve them: “I don’t think our situation is unique,” says Arnold of his labour concerns at the Vancouver Art Gallery. “I think it probably applies to a lot of other institutions.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via