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Art Gallery of Ontario employees and OPSEU union members wave placards on a picket line as they stage a strike outside the AGO in Toronto on March 26.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Children should have been making spring crafts in the basement activity centre. Adults should have been strolling through a brand new exhibition of historic art created entirely by women, or a show of cheeky paintings and sculptures by the cartoon-appropriating Brooklyn artist KAWS. The gift shop and the restaurant should have been packed. Instead, the Art Gallery of Ontario was closed during the Easter weekend and is expected to remain closed this weekend, because most of its staff are out on strike.

More than 400 members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, including assistant curators, researchers, technicians, cleaners, servers and front-of-house staff, walked out on March 26, rejecting an offer from management that they felt failed to address lagging wages and precarious part-time work.

Working to build back attendance as COVID-19 has eased, the strike puts the gallery in a tough spot: Facing forecasts of back-to-back deficits totalling just over $8-million, administrators need to hold the line on expenses in an inflationary period – and they just lost a long weekend’s receipts.

But employees weren’t satisfied with the 3.5 per cent pay increase management was offering following several years of government-legislated 1 per cent raises. They know that AGO director Stephan Jost’s annual pay package is worth 20 or even 30 times more than the half-salaries earned by part-timers who never seem to graduate to full-time work.

Like the recent strikes and unionization drives at several American institutions, the dispute at the AGO is another example of the paradox underlying today’s art museum, a place founded on cultural privilege and private wealth deeply committed to equity and inclusion. On one side, the art museum relies on the generosity of wealthy donors; on the other, it relies on the generosity of arts workers willing to take low pay for an interesting job.

Perhaps because staff so value these institutions, if not always the managers who run them, strikes among museum workers are rare, but on the rise. Workers at the Vancouver Art Gallery went out for a week in 2019 over wages, scheduling changes and workloads, and there has been a flurry of union activity in the United States. Workers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) unionized in 2021 and recently signed a new contract after a two-week strike that was also fought over wages and precarious work. Workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were out for 19 days in 2022 after unionizing in 2020. They settled, but have accused the museum of reneging on agreed improvements to longevity pay.

One sore point for many art museum workers is executive compensation: The directors of big museums take home big paycheques. In Toronto, that point was driven home two days after the AGO strike started when the Ontario government released its annual sunshine list of highly-paid public sector employees, showing that Jost made $404,000 in 2023, unchanged from 2022, and up 6.8 per cent from 2021. But eagle-eyed union leaders have also spotted that the Art Gallery of Ontario Foundation paid Jost more than $200,000 in yearly “consulting fees” in 2022 and 2021, to compensate him for his role in fundraising for the gallery.

These fees are separate from the annual executive bonuses which the gallery has now stopped: After posting a $3.3-million loss last year, the AGO is predicting a $5-million loss for its fiscal year that just ended on March 31. The gallery, which has successfully enlarged and diversified audiences by offering free admission for youth and a $40 annual pass for adults, has restored visitation to prepandemic levels of about 800,000 visits a year, but the task has proved expensive.

There are reasons that, even in difficult times, art gallery directors continue to be so highly paid. They are running large, complex public institutions and the good ones are rare leaders who combine powerful academic credentials with superior management skills. Equally important, they are fundraisers, expected to comfortably rub elbows with the wealthy who give them art, or money for programming and building campaigns.

Last year, Jost secured a $35-million donation for the AGO’s new contemporary wing from Canada Goose Holdings Inc. chief executive officer Dani Reiss, which perhaps explains that consulting fee. His job is an endowed position, with a salary paid from a fund established by donors Michael and Sonja Koerner, while the AGO raises about two-thirds of its budget itself with government grants paying the other third.

When it comes to executive pay, Canadian museums also compete in an international market – although Jost is now a Canadian citizen, he was recruited from the U.S. in 2016 – and U.S. museum executive salaries are higher still. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, the average North American museum director made $473,000 in 2003. (The association includes members from Canada and Mexico, but they only make up 7 per cent of those surveyed.) The median salary is $390,000 – perhaps more telling since the average is skewed by the multimillion-dollar salaries paid to the men who run places such as the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

None of this sits well with young AGO exhibit preparators who earn just $35,000 a year because they can’t snag a coveted full-time spot, or part-time box-office staff and cleaners paid $23 an hour, required to make themselves available five days a week but often scrounging for shifts.

The AGO says it hopes to resolve the dispute with OPSEU soon but, as of Friday, no talks were scheduled. The art museum’s economic divide yawns wide and the picketing continues.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify figures on the AGO's deficits in the third paragraph.

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