After Last Year’s Labor Battle, Will the Art Museum Come Back Stronger?
It’s been a rough few years for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, hit with layoffs, union disputes, a 19-day strike, and accusations of a toxic work culture. Can a savvy new director right the iconic institution?
It was time to say goodbye to another departing Philadelphia Museum of Art colleague.
A small group had gathered for happy-hour drinks at the Bishop’s Collar, a favorite watering hole on Fairmount Avenue, in late May 2019. Though it was arranged as simply another send-off to bid a friend farewell, the gathering would turn into a pivotal moment for the entire museum field.
Huddled around the cozy bar, the group drank beer and talked about everything from future plans to the toxic state of their workplace and their dismal pay. As the departing friend wondered what salary to request in a cover letter for another prospective museum job, the conversation grew inspired, and someone floated the idea of a salary-sharing spreadsheet. There’s a code of silence in most workplaces when it comes to pay. But imagine if you shared what you earn with colleagues. How helpful would it be to know your worth relative to that of your co-workers?
That’s what Michelle Millar Fisher wondered. In 2019, Fisher was an assistant curator of European decorative arts at the PMA — she’s since left to work at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston — and the only one in the group at the bar who held a full-time permanent position. Because of that, the group agreed she should be the face of the proposed crowdsourced salary transparency spreadsheet. Her co-workers who participated stayed anonymous at the time for fear of disciplinary measures. Nicole Cook, the program manager for graduate academic partnerships at the PMA, says, “The rest of us were in contingent positions and were very fearful.”
After happy hour wrapped, Cook gave Fisher a lift home. As they drove to Fishtown, the latter opened her phone from the passenger seat and, using Google Drive, started making the spreadsheet that would change lives.
“We were interested in improving our workplace culture in a sincere, direct way — not like, ‘FU!,’ but more like, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could change the workplace that isn’t serving this institution?” recalls Fisher. “They have high turnover, and some people drop out of the field and go into other careers. With depressed wages, it may be perceived as a good thing for the bottom line, but it’s not good for the individual or ultimately the institution. So this transparency spreadsheet was created in a mood of caring.”
The group thought they’d maybe get a few friends across the industry to contribute to the spreadsheet. They were wrong. The doc went viral. Soon, it grew from a handful of entries to more than 3,000 from around the world — and inspired similarly useful documents by other groups in the museum industry. The Mellon Foundation included a reference to its impact in its 2022 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. “It galvanized people in different ways,” says Fisher. “It made people aware of advocating for their worth in their own personal salary negotiations.”
Adam Rizzo, an educator at the museum for more than eight years and now also president of museum union Local 397, recalls the first time he saw the spreadsheet. “I was absolutely scandalized,” he says with a chuckle. “I went to a colleague and asked if we’d get in trouble if we shared our salaries. It was scary at first, but it was quickly clear not only that there were really huge pay disparities between us and folks in other institutions, but also within this museum.” The information sparked staff conversations about pay and a whole host of things that made their workplace dysfunctional. The discussions started on lunch breaks and at happy hours, then led to weekly evening meetings at homes all around Philly to talk about what museum workers wanted to improve.
The organizers assessed who else was interested in forming a union. Most of the workers were; they couldn’t unsee that salary information from the spreadsheet. And they discovered they weren’t alone. In the siloed museum structure, people were realizing that colleagues in different departments were also struggling to make rent or pay their high health-insurance premiums. Beyond pay, human resources policies seemed to be out-of-date. People would come to work ill to stockpile “sick days” because the museum didn’t offer parental leave. Those in the museum sector know going in that it’s notoriously underpaid, like other industries considered “prestigious.” But seeing that someone was being paid more to do the same work at a different museum — or that a colleague in the same department was — stoked simmering grievances and challenged internalized ideas that these museum workers should be grateful to have these jobs at all. To paraphrase the 1976 film Network, these organizers were mad as hell — and they weren’t going to take it anymore. It all set the stage for one of the most turbulent periods in the venerable museum’s history, one that would lead to leadership turnover, intense scrutiny, and, ultimately, the reimagining of the museum’s role in the city.
Not only did PMA workers vote to unionize in the summer of 2020; they made history by becoming the nation’s first wall-to-wall union at a museum. This meant the workers, spread out in more than 20 departments, could form a single collective bargaining unit and leverage their power. This was a victory in their efforts to move toward workers’ rights, but they and the museum still had a long way to go to resolve their differences — 27 more months, in fact. The unduly protracted labor negotiations for fair pay and safer work conditions that followed seemed as head-scratching then as now. Why didn’t the director and the board spare themselves time, grief and bad publicity, acknowledge the situation, and figure out an agreement? In a city with roots in Quaker ideals of equality, stewardship and community, the lack of effort toward finding consensus was, well, striking. One arts insider commented, “My read of it from the news was, why was all of this necessary? The union wasn’t making crazy, irrational demands.”
The headline-grabbing strike last October was the culmination of a series of crises at the PMA that included one supervisor allegedly sexually harassing underlings and another physically assaulting others. That prompted the board of directors in 2020 to hire an outside consulting firm to conduct an assessment of workplace culture — a study that, according to the Inquirer, “found problems and deficiencies at all levels of the hierarchy — from the boardroom on down.”
In early 2022, amid all this turmoil (and months into labor negotiations), museum director and CEO Timothy Rub, then 69, stepped down after 13 years; that summer, the museum appointed as his successor Sasha Suda, then 41 and the director of Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada. The generational shift was significant. At the announcement of his departure, Rub told the New York Times through a spokesperson: “If I had to turn back the clock, I would have also recognized sooner that we needed to focus … on the museum’s internal culture.” Contrast that with a description of his successor from Canada’s Globe and Mail visual arts critic, Kate Taylor: “Suda is passionately engaged in changing art museums so they don’t sink into irrelevance or, worse yet, become lightning rods for resentment of their white, male privilege.” At the National Gallery, where Suda had served for three years, her strategic plan focused on accessibility, diversity and inclusion and created an “Indigenous ways and decolonization department.” In reference to her PMA appointment, Taylor declared that Suda’s “stress on diversity and democracy is exactly what that institution needs, too.”
Taylor noted that Suda “can be refreshingly frank about what art museums — out of touch with a diverse public; slow to change — need to do and will cite her predecessors’ ‘mistakes.’” That sounds like a refreshing remedy for an ailing organization. Which is why it seemed odd when representatives of the PMA turned down my repeated requests for an interview with Suda — or with the board of trustees chair — for this story. The museum’s cold shoulder underscored the sentiments expressed by frustrated museum employees about a workplace they love despite not always feeling loved back.
To the wider public, too, Suda’s silence during the strike seemed downright peculiar. Philadelphians are proud of that shining museum on a hill; our relationship to it generally begins in childhood, with the excitement of school field trips to an adult sanctuary of a novel kind. A smoothly functioning museum benefits tourism and is one of the intangibles that build city esteem and make this a desirable place in which to live and invest. Beyond that, a museum can serve as a venue in which people share ideas, feel represented, and experience connection. Laura Raicovich, a New York City-based curator and author of Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, sees cultural spaces as critical to the imagination; they’re where we encounter things that inspire, educate or confound us. “In a moment of time when our imagination could be narrowed and less expansive,” Raicovich says, “what we need most of all is the opportunity to be nurtured and to think expansively of what’s possible.”
In other words: We need our museum. And we needed to know: What the hell was going on?
The organizing that began at the Bishop’s Collar in 2019 was about much more than just wages. When museum workers announced their intention to unionize the following year, “Management was caught off guard,” says union head Rizzo. “Given the environment at the museum, I was shocked they didn’t know it was coming. There were two major harassment scandals that went public, in January and February 2020. People were feeling unsafe and angry at the institution for failing so incredibly.”
The scandals involved two museum managers, Joshua Helmer and James Cincotta, neither of whom works there any longer or is allowed on the premises. The controversy over their allegedly inappropriate and abusive behavior was covered in the Inquirer and the New York Times, among other outlets. In brief, Helmer, the assistant director of interpretation, “was viewed as a ‘golden boy’ and a favorite of museum director and CEO Timothy Rub,” according to the Inquirer. The New York Times spoke with nine women who said Helmer made advances toward them in the workplace and tried to manipulate female subordinates in exchange for dates. Complaints started in 2016, but the women were unclear about what became of their reports. A spokesman for the PMA, Norman Keyes, said Helmer “was separated” from the museum in February 2018 and that the museum didn’t provide details because conditions of departures are confidential.
Cook, whose time overlapped with Helmer’s, recalls a meeting with him and another colleague in his office: “During the conversation, he basically said the museum is like the show House of Cards. He said this is really a House of Cards situation and about positioning yourself and how you can use information to get ahead. He also said, ‘This is like Fight Club, and the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.’ But the point of that novel and the film is not to replicate it, but the danger of that approach.” Cook sighs and adds, “In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Why am I stuck in this conversation with this young man? He’s thinking he’s a politician in D.C. rather than an art museum professional.’”
Cincotta, the director of museum retail operations, was accused of physically and verbally abusing and even striking an employee. In 2016, the museum conducted an internal investigation after several colleagues reported that he’d slapped a gift-shop worker. He stayed at the museum for two more years following the investigation and continued as a board member for Collab, the museum’s modern and contemporary design group. The PMA eventually banned him from the premises.
Workers say the museum hierarchy made communication about problematic workplace issues difficult. Hierarchies aren’t unusual in large organizations and are often necessary. But workers say there were significant accountability gaps and that problems weren’t addressed. Fisher says, “There was just this intransigence about recognizing the lack of correct management and leadership.”
Though some managers were doing right by their particular teams, poor staffing and the resulting workload was another ongoing friction point for workers, who say that as open positions went unfilled, they were being asked to do more. There are only three full-time educators now in the education department; six posts are unfilled. In a typical year, that department would serve 60,000 schoolchildren. Cook says the museum has become “a revolving door”: In one four-month period last September through December, 41 employees left, out of some 350 total. “Throughout my time here, people have been leaving in droves for better-paid opportunities and healthier workplaces,” Cook adds. “The staff is so incredibly slim right now that it’s created huge problems. There are people who’ve left and no one knows how to do their job.” Every time a worker leaves, it costs the museum. The national average cost per hire, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, is about $4,700 — not counting losses in productivity as new hires are onboarded.
Workers say the turmoil was multi-factorial. There were too many tiers of management and a diffusion of responsibility. Some members of the senior leadership team were focused on the massive Frank Gehry Core Project renovation (completed in May 2021), with its $230 million-plus construction cost — and the fund-raising that went with it. In 2017, the museum had embarked on the largest capital campaign in its history, aimed at raising $525 million. Were board members uninformed about the severity of issues? Was everyone overworked and moving too fast to make sure people were treated appropriately?
Wharton School management professor Samir Nurmohamed offers this analysis of organization dynamics: “Workplace culture in general comes from leaders — not just things they say, but how they do things. We make huge associations by what we as workers observe, particularly [when it comes to] high-status or senior-level people in the organization.” Basically, culture trickles down from the top, and at the PMA, things at the top weren’t working right.
It was in the wake of press coverage of Helmer that board chair Leslie Anne Miller announced by email to staff that she was committed to making changes, and that the board had hired New York City-based VallotKarp Consulting to perform a “cultural assessment.” An advisory committee of employees from all tiers and departments was created to help with the report. (Following the email, Rub apologized to staff at a closed-door town-hall meeting for the way the museum had handled the accusations.)
“It was really a great group,” says Cook, who was a staff-nominated member of that team. “We put a lot of emotion, time and effort into answering detailed questions on issues of gender and race.” She says the VallotKarp report revealed “a culture of bullying and intimidation by senior-level managers at the museum. There would be things said like, ‘There are dozens of people lined up to take any of your jobs’ — essentially, that you are replaceable. They found lots of evidence of discrimination from staff based on gender and ethnicity and age, based on whether they had disabilities — across the board, that the institution favored white people.”
In a written response to Philadelphia about this summation, the museum stated: “PMA recognized the need for change and took immediate steps to address several areas of concern, including the establishment in 2020 of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA) that is part of the Senior Leadership team. These steps also included the establishment of mandatory anti-harassment training for all staff, and the creation of a hotline that is administered by a third party for anonymously reporting any type of harassment.”
In its statement, the museum added: “Now, with our new leadership in place, PMA is pursuing a crucial evolution with a future-focused vision committed to building a safe, sustainable, and equitable culture. Together with a talented and valued staff, PMA is dedicated to creating a contemporary, inclusive institution for the many diverse communities we serve.”
The VallotKarp report recommended a major overhaul of internal communication methods. Cook says the advisory group wanted to remain functional to provide feedback on progress to the board: “We put forward several proposals, but all were rejected, and we were told our group was dissolved. It was essentially, ‘Thank you for your work, but now our job as trustees is to take recommendations into practice.’”
It didn’t help the situation that the museum hit a tone-deaf note in the summer of 2020 in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. Rub and Gail Harrity, then president and chief operating officer, sent out an email to staff in support of diversity but added a note that “every individual life matters.” The cultural misstep pointed up ongoing concern about the museum’s diversity. The PMA is no outlier; a Mellon Foundation 2022 staff demographic survey found that 64 percent of staffers at 328 North American art museums were white. Rizzo describes the museum as an “overwhelmingly white space, except for the security officers.” That summer of 2020, only 38 of its 481 employees were Black — eight percent of the workforce. (Security officers are contracted through a private vendor.) Seven of the 51 elected members of the board were identified by a museum spokesperson as diverse/people of color — in a city whose population is 43.6 percent Black. The museum sought to make amends by taking the steps outlined in the statement quoted above.
Two days before the history-making vote to unionize in 2020, the PMA announced that it was laying off 85 workers. The layoffs, made in anticipation of a $16 million income loss due to the pandemic, emphasized the general precarity in the field. “We were doing all this organizing, and the pandemic is happening, and this multimillion-dollar renovation, and we’re taking pay cuts,” recalls Rizzo. “They are firing people and asking us to come back to a building with a bigger footprint and now do more work for more exhibitions in a bigger space. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
Next, the museum declined to voluntarily recognize the new workers union and hired white-shoe law firm Morgan Lewis to represent it in the process. “The leadership team fought us every step of the way,” explains Cook, who’s an elected AFSCME Local 397 trustee. “We had an 89 percent win to unionize. I thought that would send a message to leadership that we were serious and unified in our goals, but then we spent the next two years at the bargaining table, going back and forth making mountains out of molehills, like the weeks spent on something as simple as where we could put union materials on a bulletin board.”
Bargaining out a new contract often takes months — according to labor data analyzed by Bloomberg Law, the average time for an employer and a bargaining unit to sign a first contract is 465 days. But the 27 months it took PMA workers and the board to reach an agreement was long even by that standard.
Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Art Management at the University of Maryland and a legendary arts consultant who has turned around ailing institutions including the (then) Pennsylvania Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and London’s Royal Opera House, says of the PMA turmoil, “When it becomes this visible and there’s a strike, from my experience, there’s a people issue at the top, and a lack of relationship — or a good relationship — that spurs that on.” Kaiser, who has no connection to the museum, adds, “Not patting myself on the back, but when I was running the Kennedy Center, we never had a strike, and we had 11 unions.” All such institutions, he adds, are having to address “issues of compensation and the relationship between the highest- and lowest-paid workers.”
In such labor discussions, he adds, there are no good guys or bad guys: “It’s just one group trying to see how to be in a new way, and the other group is working to get there, but the pace is too slow.” Compounding financial fears of the board, he notes, are wider questions: “How do we balance the budget and survive in a world in which people are embracing culture less? They’re staying home and watching Netflix.” Good leaders in the arts “get paid a lot of money because they reduce that fear quotient. So they are worth a lot.”
One former museum director elsewhere sums up the problem this way: “Museums have never figured out how to pay for themselves. And they keep going bigger on all things: building bigger buildings, growing collections, striving to pay people more equitably, and working to embrace the whole community. But doing all those things isn’t free.”
Late last September, after two years of fruitless bargaining, the museum workers took to the picket line just a few weeks before the seven-years-in-the-planning, much-anticipated “Matisse in the 1930s” exhibit was set to open. “Not in my wildest imagination did I think it would come to a strike, with the museum paying scabs to do a major exhibition installation,” says Cook. The day of the strike was Suda’s first day on the job. Perhaps due to her newness, she took a passive approach, sidestepping the labor imbroglio and leaving negotiations to others. That didn’t spare her from criticism. An October PMA union Instagram post included a photo of her entering the museum with the comment: “Is she hiding from our picket lines? How long does she plan to keep this up? Why won’t she look us in the eyes as she denies us affordable healthcare?”
Unionizing was going Gen Z, with digital natives mobilizing via Instagram and Twitter. Tom Seymour, a writer for international art-world publication Art Newspaper, assessed this change in workers’ rights last year in an article on why more museum workers are unionizing: “This is a new form of collective action: remotely formed, digitally optimized, fluent in social communications, diverse in composition, and intent on overturning long-held status quos around labor rights, job security and working conditions.” He added, “The new strain of organizing is often peopled by a new demographic of museum workers, one more politicized, younger and more diverse than previous generations. Yet it is also one saddled with high levels of student debt and having to contend with astronomical living costs.”
In a July Instagram post, the museum union used data from the Association of Art Museum Directors to point out that while its workers were paid on average 29 percent less than those at other art museums in its budget class, the PMA chief operating officer’s salary was more than the budget-class median — by 48 percent. It was a compelling example of wage discrepancies. La Tanya S. Autry, a curator, cultural organizer, and co-founder of the nonprofit organization #Museums-AreNotNeutral, was impressed with the Philly union’s use of social media to broadcast issues to the wider field, showcasing their “ingenuity” and understanding of collective power: “It definitely didn’t do the museum any favors.”
The publicity surrounding the strike doesn’t make fund-raising easier, either. Kaiser estimates that a strike typically sets such efforts back by a year or two. City officials also criticized the museum on social media, with some showing up on the picket lines. On the 15th day of the strike, the museum announced it was disabling comments on its Twitter and Instagram accounts, which were getting strafed by rude and angry backlash.
The contretemps had a very generation-clash vibe: wealthy board members using a private-corporation playbook to tamp down young(er) workers’ agitation for parental leave, a living wage on par with similar museums, and affordable health care. Workers complained about withering opportunities to advance and growing numbers of jobs filled with temporary and contract workers, which contributed to workplace anxiety.
The American public has grown more sympathetic toward unions in the past few years, thanks to highly visible organizing efforts at places like Starbucks and Amazon; a survey last year showed a favorable rating of unions of 71 percent — the highest in 60 years.
The PMA is by no means unique in the museum sector in having to confront long-standing structural issues, including a lack of diversity in its leadership and boards, relevancy to a wider world, funding struggles, and the wave of unionization sweeping the country’s cultural and corporate institutions. Some of these concerns are the inevitable consequence of how public art museums were conceived from the outset and the biases embedded in them. Many of our museums (including Philly’s) were built on public municipal lands (with public funds) and intended to educate the public. They were repositories of donated collections typically compiled by white men of wealth, education and means. That distinct founding ethos and character continue to reverberate. Museums are cultural archives that proclaim who we are and what we care about. These institutions are shaped by those in power, and it matters who works inside them and what stories they tell and preserve.
In a 2021 museum blog post, Nicole Allen White, the PMA’s former director of governmental and external affairs (she resigned in December), wrote: “The Western art museum is built on white supremacy. You can’t not see it when you look around. … Art museums are built on the Western canon. But if you’re going to be truly equitable, you kind of have to unhang the whole museum, in a sense. That is hard to accept … and people don’t want to address the really hard questions until they’re confronted with them.” And she asserted that a museum should reflect its surroundings: “In a city where the majority of the population are people of color, we need to have a more diverse staff and then ensure that people from marginalized backgrounds feel they have equal footing within the organization.”
Diversity in the workplace begets more diversity: A variety of life experiences equips the workforce to better serve and know how to attract a more diverse staff and audiences. The Mellon Foundation’s 2022 demographic survey found that people of color on museum staffs grew from 27 percent in 2015 to 36 percent this past year. Still, more than 80 percent of surveyed museum leadership and conservation posts are held by white people.
Museums have been faulted for making efforts at diversity, equity and inclusion that are merely decorative. “The reality of DEI is not a thing or a program,” says Thaddeus Squire, the founder of Social Impact Commons, who has two decades of experience in nonprofit management and worked at the museum as a grant writer in the late 1990s. “The reality is, it’s all values, culture, policies and processes. Every vein and capillary of an institution needs to change to accomplish these intentions.”
“It’s a huge problem,” Cook says. “I can’t tell you the number of people we talked to while we were on the picket line who were not regular visitors to the museum. They said they very much don’t feel comfortable in those spaces but were coming up to support us as workers instead.”
All this is set against a financial conundrum. Having wealth as the driver for who serves on the board of trustees at an institution naturally narrows the field of who’s eligible and the variety of perspectives that a board represents. Yet that philanthropy is essential to fund the institution. “Board governance is a really important field-wide discussion right now,” says Cook. “Part of the problem at our museum is that we have generally relied on families that have historically been trustees of the museum. This gives them a sense of outsized ownership about a place that is a public institution.” Wealthy patrons with similar life experiences can be altruistic and serve tirelessly to benefit chosen organizations, but they can also have blind spots. It brings to mind Donald Rumsfeld’s quote about known unknowns and unknown unknowns. You can’t solve problems that you don’t even see.
Picketing the Matisse exhibition’s big Saturday-night preview gala last October would have been quite the show. Think of that potential photo op: workers in picket garb chanting slogans for fair pay as donors and board members parade past in fancy party clothes. But under increasing pressure from city officials, notably former deputy mayor of labor Rich Lazer, as well as from the old guard — including former senior Comcast executive and current ambassador to Canada David L. Cohen — the PMA board finally offered a contract proposal the day before the VIP gala. It was officially accepted a few days later. The new contract, which runs through June 30, 2025, includes wage increases totaling 14 percent across its duration; a substantial reduction to the cost of the health-care plan; four weeks of paid parental leave; an increase in the minimum hourly wage from $15 to $16.75; and regular “longevity” boosts of $500 in annual pay for every five years of employment for full-time employees.
The mood at work after the three-week strike was “complicated,” Rizzo says: “A lot of people are very happy to be back doing jobs they love and are passionate about, but it’s been hard to hear management talk about how we need to come together and heal when museum management kept you outside for three weeks when we were fighting for basic things. We weren’t asking for the moon, so it’s hard to square that.” Management hosted a welcome-back ice-cream social the day workers returned. Employees snacked on ice-cream sandwiches, but there were no conciliatory speeches. Still, the camaraderie formed with co-workers during the strike has been a balm to many returning staffers. “There’s been lots of ups and downs since the strike, but the union group remains very strong,” says Cook.
In an Ottawa Morning radio interview last June, Suda exuded confidence in her ability to lead when asked about what she faces at the PMA: “I think that leadership right now is a challenge. I think that confidence in leadership, writ large, is waning, or has waned, and that doesn’t scare me. I actually feel passionately that someone has to lead, and someone has to lead with consideration of the employee. … And I take it really seriously and embrace the accountability that I have to each and every person.” Board chair Leslie Anne Miller has praised Suda’s management style and communications skills. Both will be needed to repair the hits to the museum’s stature and improve relations with its staff.
In December, the PMA announced the elevation of former contemporary art curator Carlos Basualdo to a newly created post: deputy director and chief curator. Most major museums have a head curator position, so the move isn’t innovative, but it should help Suda manage her time more effectively and help the museum catch up to other institutions that have realized it’s too much to ask one chief executive to do it all.
Arts consultant Michael Kaiser says the first order of Suda’s tenure should be to create a broad-scale strategic plan that allows many different parts of the organization to have a voice. “If workers feel fear to express themselves,” he says, “then someone is not doing a good job running the place — particularly a creative place, where they have to be able to gather ideas.” And if managers don’t create comfortable spaces for innovation? “Train them or fire them,” says Kaiser. “Some can learn and change, but you can’t have a leadership that’s tone-deaf and be able to run a healthy organization.”
What else should be on her agenda? Workers have pitched in ideas: clear communication; filling open positions; more accountability, candor and transparency; making DEI a comprehensive mission; inviting ideas, innovation and feedback (even when it’s hard to hear); refraining from a reflexive “no” to new ideas, because the best ones often come from unexpected places. Suda has likely spent the months since her arrival creating just such a strategic plan. When I tried to secure an interview with her, the museum’s PR head hinted at big news to be revealed this spring.
In her brief stint as director of Canada’s National Gallery, Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor notes, Suda brought change but not stability, as that institution experienced substantial personnel changes: “Her tenure has seen a steady drip of senior staff, as some stalwarts … bowed out and some newcomers didn’t last.”
Whatever lies in the PMA’s future didn’t seem likely to dismay the chatty crowd of museum workers who, a few weeks after the strike, gathered for a sidewalk happy hour outside Urban Saloon, a few blocks from those famous Rocky steps. Groups of friends from every department clustered around the heat lamps on a frigid night, drinking beer and hot toddies while discussing work and life. Plans were afoot for the social committee to organize more ways to keep up the connections made during the strike.
That three-week strike showed just how much these employees love the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the work they do there — as well as how much they care for each other. “Unionization is an extraordinary opportunity to learn what people want,” Culture Strike author Raicovich says. “Any protest or unionization effort is actually a gift, a gesture of radical care for that institution. It says, ‘I care enough about this to change it.’” Choppy waters can be useful if they lead to solutions. “There is opportunity in these spaces,” Raicovich says, but warns: “It will be messy. That’s the nature of this kind of process. One has to make amends, set it right, and remake the course forward.”
The workers in the union got what they wanted from the board, eventually. But the board and the new director got something, too: an extraordinary commitment from a workforce that’s willing to make sacrifices in service to an institution with the potential to provide vitality for and deep engagement with the city. “I don’t blame Sasha for anything,” says Rizzo. “I’ve spoken to her since the strike, and so far, she’s proven to be a really positive force within the museum. She seems to be promoting a different type of museum that’s open and transparent.” A museum spokesperson pointed to signs of real growth, noting that “about 30 percent of our current staff identify as diverse, with about 14 percent of the staff identifying as Black,” and “21 percent of our board identifies as diverse, with 11 percent of our board members identifying as Black.”
Suda faces what some observers have described as a substantial Gordian knot to unravel. Will she, like Alexander the Great, deftly resolve the massive snarl? Or will she get lost in the museum’s tangle of deep-rooted issues instead? Suda was hired at the National Gallery of Canada to bring big change and shake up its reputation for being remote and elitist. No doubt she understands the assignment is similar at her new job. Change is messy; the National Gallery is still roiling in chaos as it undoes calcified habits. (Four more senior staffers were laid off in November by the interim director who followed Suda.) But nobody could say the PMA board didn’t know what it was getting with Suda. She appears ready to fight to produce a relevant, relatable, dynamic museum here in Philadelphia.
When she first arrived, Suda seemed to be shying away from the controversy swirling around the PMA. But she may very well be doing the right things outside the public eye. After all, the union, in the wake of the drama of organizing, actually seems to have her back.
Published as “How the Art Museum Got Turned Upside Down” in the February 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.