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News / February 7, 2019

Support Grows for Striking Vancouver Gallery Workers

Major patrons, local artists and other museum workers are speaking up
Picket signs at the Vancouver Art Gallery this week. Photo: Instagram / @vagonstrike. Picket signs at the Vancouver Art Gallery this week. Photo: Instagram / @vagonstrike.
Picket signs at the Vancouver Art Gallery this week. Photo: Instagram / @vagonstrike. Picket signs at the Vancouver Art Gallery this week. Photo: Instagram / @vagonstrike.

Support appears to be building, at least in some sectors, for the Vancouver Art Gallery workers who have been on strike since Tuesday morning.

Today, the main gallery spokesperson has said that it is waiting on a decision from the BC Labour Board that would permit a worker vote on the gallery’s final offer to go forward. So far the gallery has remained open, with some services reduced, during the strike. “The reason we’ve asked for this vote is because we want the staff to have a chance to see our full offer with their own eyes, and make a decision that is best for them,” writes Johanie Marcoux, director of marketing, communications and public affairs at the Vancouver Art Gallery via email.

Marcoux adds: “No one working for the Gallery right now will have anything else than they already have under this offer. There is no rollback—no clawing back of anything—in fact, just the opposite. Included in the proposal are increases in wages for everyone across the board (retroactive to July 1, 2017), extra overtime pay for people on our flexible schedule, extra pay for first-aid attendants, and extra pay for those on less desirable shifts.” Sick-leave reductions suggested by the gallery were also removed after objection by the union in recent weeks, Marcoux states.

CUPE Local 15 maintains that there are still two significant and outstanding problems in the gallery’s offer.

“The gallery is asking that we accept wage increases that are below inflation, which puts us further behind,” a union bargaining committee said in statement Monday. “We all work hard to make the Gallery the best it can be, but we simply cannot afford to subsidize the Gallery with our labour and the current wage proposals ask us to do just that.”

The other issue for the union is elimination, for new employees, of the nine-day fortnight, a flexible work guideline which permits some employees to work their contracted hours over nine days rather than ten: “This proposal erodes our working conditions, undermines future generations of Gallery workers, and sets a dangerous precedent for future attempts to undermine our rights,” stated the union committee on Monday.

A union update yesterday indicates: “We held a solid picket line Tuesday and were able to identify replacement workers which were promptly removed.” Twitter and Instagram updates from striking workers also indicate union members are out and picketing today as well. And calls of solidarity and concern around them are growing.

Major Donors Criticize Gallery Management

Yesterday, a letter to gallery director Kathleen Bartels written by prominent Vancouver philanthropists and collectors Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft began circulating on social media.

“As longtime supporters and boosters of the Vancouver Art Gallery, we wish to express our extreme displeasure with the VAG management’s mishandling of the current contract negotiations with its staff,” Beck and Gruft wrote in the letter. “You have had 18 months to make an agreement. We know the gallery staff is extremely hard working, competent and loyal.” (The workers have been without a contract since 2017.)

The letter also expresses concern about the “bad strategy and terrible optics” of a strike just weeks after a widely publicized $40 million donation was made to the gallery for a new Herzog and de Meuron–designed building.

“Given that the gallery is at a key moment in the fundraising campaign for the new building, this situation is completely inappropriate,” Beck and Gruft write. “This is a serious strategic blunder. The gallery needs to swiftly resolve this issue and come to a respectful agreement with staff.”

Beck and Gruft also point out the difficulty of the VAG asking the BC government for millions in new-building funding while a strike is ongoing.

“There is no excuse for this situation,” Beck and Gruft write. “If the administration is incapable of resolving the issue forthwith, the Board needs to step in and do so, before more damage is done.”

The public feedback is especially notable given Beck and Gruft’s longtime relationship with the gallery. Just last year, Beck and Gruft donated 41 artworks to the Vancouver Art Gallery, including Stephen Waddell’s large-scale colour photo The Asphalt Layer (2001) and Wayne Alfred’s red cedar bark sculpture Salmon Transformation Mask (1992). And in 2005, the gallery trumpeted the acquisition of 460 images from the Beck and Gruft collection valued at $2 million in total, including works by Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange, among others.

Artists and Museum Workers Speak Out

Internationally renowned Vancouver artist Rodney Graham also spoke up recently in a letter to Vancouver Art Gallery CEO Kathleen Bartels and Vancouver Art Gallery board chair David Calabrigo.

“I know the sacrifices staff have made to accommodate the gallery’s financial situation when necessary and I know that recent wage increases have been well below the inflation rate,” Rodney Graham writes in the letter posted to Instagram. “I know too that morale is low due to less and respectful treatment by management.”

Graham concludes: “It is unseemly for an institution as important as the Vancouver Art Gallery to treat their employees in the manner in which they have, and it is time for management to act responsibly and respect the VAG staff’s modest demands.”

Lyse Lemieux, a Vancouver artist who has 63 watercolours currently on view as part of the Vancouver Art Gallery group exhibition “The Metamorphosis,” has also expressed support for the striking workers. She even brought some donuts down to the picket line for workers to eat on the first day of the strike.

“Cultural workers in Vancouver have a real struggle, as do artists—so that’s where my sympathies lie,” Lemieux tells Canadian Art. “What I know of the Vancouver Art Gallery staff is they’re such hard workers. I’ve yet to meet one who isn’t always working over and above the call of duty. And it’s been like that for a long time.”

Lemieux says she finds it hard to make ends meet and pay rent in Canada’s most expensive housing market herself, and she is concerned about gallery workers being able to do that as well—especially since one of the strikers’ main concerns is low wages. She also says she understands that a new building is needed, and more space for the collection. But the balance isn’t there.

“It seems like a rather surreal position to be in that [the VAG] is hoping to raise all this money for a new building at a time when employees have been without a collective agreement for two years,” Lemieux says.

International headlines are starting to grow about the strike, and international support for labour as well. The recently formed New Museum Union in New York tweeted solidarity and support yesterday.

Locally, Denbigh Fine Art Services, which is frequently contracted to the gallery in various capacities, has expressed support for the striking workers.

“We do support the workers, obviously,” says Ed Chan of Denbigh Fine Art Services. “We have worked with all the staff there—registrars and preparators—and we know them quite well.”

For the time being, says Chan, the work Denbigh was scheduled to do right now with an exhibition changeover is on hold. Instead, he says, it will be taken up after the gallery’s labour dispute is resolved.

“Please respect their picket line,” curator writes

Jesse McKee, who co-curated the major local survey exhibition “Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures” at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2016, has also written a letter of striker solidarity to the gallery board chair David Calabrigo and CEO Kathleen Bartels.

“Please respect their picket line and stop encouraging the public on social media to visit the Gallery,” McKee writes in his letter, which he posted to Instagram. “The Vancouver Art Gallery is off-limits until you concede to the union’s demands for a new collective agreement bargained in good faith.”

The Capture Photography Festival, which takes place in April at various Vancouver venues, and has partnered with the Vancouver Art Gallery in the past, has also come out with a statement of solidarity and support for gallery workers. “Capture Photography Festival stands in solidarity with the members of VAG CUPE 15, who have been working for nearly two years at the Vancouver Art Gallery without a collective agreement, as they seek fair wages and working conditions,” its statement reads. “A non-profit institution of such scale requires careful planning and strong leadership, which should prioritize and not view as a concession the livelihoods and well-being of its equally necessary qualified professional and service staff.”

In addition to dealing with growing vocalization of striker support in some areas, the Vancouver Art Gallery management team also now has to deal with being largely unstaffed during a time when the installation of the touring exhibition “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850–1950” would likely have been in the process of being completed.

The “French Moderns” show, originally from the Brooklyn Museum, is due to open February 16, along with a talk by Brooklyn museum curator Lisa Small. As well, the show “Dana Claxton: Fringing the Cube” closed on February 3, just two days before the strike began, and its deinstallation is likely on hold due to the strike.

Late yesterday, a representative of the BC Labour Board confirmed that the board still has not approved a request for a worker vote on the gallery’s final offer, but says such vote requests are usually processed “quickly.”

Canadian Art also requested comment from the Brooklyn Museum about their protocol for touring exhibitions affected by a strike, and about whether its curator would cross a picket line, but no such comment was received by press time.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. She has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.