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Art & Architecture Strike by Vancouver Art Gallery workers overshadow celebration of $40-million donation

Vancouver Art Gallery employees picket outside the building after unionized workers went on strike, in Vancouver, on Feb. 5, 2019.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The most talked about drawings at the Vancouver Art Gallery this week have not been the paintings on the walls, but cheeky poster-board creations that have been circling the building.

These signs are being carried by some of the more than 200 VAG workers who are on strike, including curators who create the shows, technicians who install artworks and conservators who look after it. They have been outside the gallery on the coldest week of the year, carrying picket signs with slogans such as “Modern Art/Ancient Wages” and “Waging Warhol Against Low Wages.”

It’s never a good time for a strike, but this timing is particularly problematic for the art gallery, which is looking to build a new museum. (“Shiny New Building/Shabby old Wages” is another sign.)

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“How can management so badly sour the news of a fantastic $40-million donation with a strike by staff?” donors Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft wrote in a strongly worded letter to gallery director Kathleen Bartels. “Very bad strategy and terrible optics.” The letter calls on the board to step in and resolve the situation if the administration can’t.

“We were actually both surprised and just outraged that the gallery would push it to this extent,” Ms. Beck said from the picket line on Friday. (She had not intended for the letter to go public.)

Members of CUPE Local 15 have been without a contract since July, 2017. After eight months of talks, they walked off the job on Tuesday. On Friday, both sides agreed to mediation, which is scheduled for Sunday.

The issues that remain on the table are wages and work schedules. (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/art-and-architecture/article-vancouver-art-gallery-union-workers-go-on-strike-over-wages/) But talk to the people on the picket line – or others in the arts community – and you will hear that it’s not necessarily the issues on the table that have led to the strike.

“It’s so much more than those numbers. It’s many years of frustration and seeing so many good people leave. We’ve seen so much talent leave because the conditions are quite difficult,” picketing registrar Susan Sirovyak said. “A lot of overwork. A lot of being underappreciated, undervalued.”

In another letter to Ms. Bartels and board chair David Calabrigo, renowned artist Rodney Graham wrote: “Morale is low due to less-than-respectful treatment by management. It is unseemly for an institution as important as the Vancouver Art Gallery to treat their employees in the manner in which they have.”

Support in the visual-arts community seems strong. Artists who have visited the picket line include Rebecca Belmore, Christos Dikeakos, Andrew Dadson, Paul Wong, Lyse Lemieux and Dana Claxton (a large ad for Ms. Claxton’s show, Fringing the Cube, still hangs from the VAG’s exterior).

On Saturday at noon, there will be a rally to support the workers (bargaining-committee chair Noel Graves prefers to call it “a happening.”)

Less than two weeks before the strike, the gallery announced a $40-million private donation (and millions more dollars) to build a new gallery. Provincial Culture Minister Lisa Beare was in the front row. While she did not announce any funds (the gallery has asked for $50-million in addition to the $50-million the province gave in 2008), her presence seemed to speak volumes.

Finally, the project − which the VAG has been working on for well over a decade − was gathering steam. A strike has put the brakes on that momentum. It’s hard to imagine an NDP government supporting an institution whose workers are on strike. On Friday, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh visited the picket line to show his support.

The exhibition French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950 has been scheduled to open Feb. 16. On Friday, the gallery couldn’t provide an update, but Mr. Graves said that seems unlikely. “We’d need to be back to work today and work straight through in order to get that up."

The gallery has remained open and some visitors are crossing the picket line.

Mr. Graves says garbage is not being picked up, mail is not being delivered and members of the Teamsters union won’t work on film or TV shoots there.

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There is collateral damage, too. “Our sales are the worst they have ever been,” said Murray Jamieson, who runs the gallery’s café, which is not owned by the VAG. “I’m having to cut staff daily.”

Ms. Bartels has not been available for an interview, but in a letter she sent to members of the arts community, she said that she believes the offer is fair and sustainable. “Be assured that the Gallery does not trivialize the excellent work that the dedicated staff and members do,” she wrote.

Christian Chan, who made that $40-million donation on behalf of his family, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that he is certain it is a difficult situation for both sides. “I am optimistic that ultimately this will be resolved in short order in a mutually agreeable way.”

On the picket line, there is solidarity and an upbeat mood. But people say they don’t want to be there.

Tara Fraser, head of conservation at the gallery, is having trouble sleeping. “They’re in there and I’m out here, all my babies,” she said, referring to the VAG’s art collection. “I have 12,000 babies,” she added. “At least they’re warm.”

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