The North Star


Art Gallery of Ontario on strike

Museum workers “Mistreated and underpaid”

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Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) workers have now been striking for over three weeks in downtown Toronto. Local 535 of the Ontario Public Service Union (OPSEU), represents more than 400 workers, including assistant curators, carpenters, and food workers. After several weeks of striking, the workers say little progress has been made as management is not showing up to the bargaining table.

“While we struggled through a public health crisis and three years of unconstitutional wage freezes, elite executives made hundreds of thousands," said Paul Ayers, President of OPSEU/SEFPO Local 535. "We need a deal that helps us stay afloat in a cost-of-living crisis in the most expensive city in Canada – and the AGO’s latest offer falls short of that.”

The demands of workers include wage increases, protection of part-time workers, and limiting the contracting out of staff positions. Despite being a large public employer, 60% of the staff are part-time workers. “Really, we are trying to get fairness in employment,” says Mark Thornberry, an event setup coordinator at AGO. “Over the years, employment has been eroded, and there has been a reliance on part-time positions,” he says.

“They are not offering us full-time contracts at all," says Marquise Thompson, a food worker and strike captain. "We want a fair living wage, and we want the ability to just be able to pay our rent and feed ourselves." 

As the strike continues, instead of negotiating, the AGO has been flying in scab workers from museums in Los Angeles to de-install the Keith Haring exhibit. Strike captain Thompson says that management has “been shutting us out [and] didn't even come to the bargaining table on more than one occasion."

Adding insult to injury, the AGO Foundation somehow finds the money to pay its CEO, Stephan Jost, close to $400k in 'consulting' fees between 2020-2021, on top of his $406k salary. "Yet there's no money for wages" asks Ayers, "The gallery can absolutely afford to bring forward a better offer."

Picket lines outside AGO ​​​​​​​

On top of the strike, the AGO is also facing an ongoing boycott and a series of protests around the censorship of Wanda Nanibush, the gallery's first Indigenous curator. Nanibush was hired in 2017 as a curator and co-lead of the gallery's Indigenous and Canadian Art Department. 

While the AGO publicly framed Nanibush’s recent exit as a "mutual decision," a leaked letter from the Israel Museum and Arts Canada (IMAAC) to the AGO on October 16th suggests otherwise. 

IMAAC accused Nanibush of "hate speech" for her social media posts, which they said have repeatedly stated that "Israel is involved in genocide and colonialism.” In response, an open letter to the gallery signed by 3,300 artists and cultural workers criticized IMAAC’s letter as "bullying by pro-Israel art collectors and donors.” The artists’ letter claims that this effectively pushed Nanibush out, contradicting the AGO’s own stated commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion.

In an interview with The North Star, a representative of Artists Against Artwashing proclaimed, “What we’re seeing right now in a lot of Canadian art institutions and just in the Canadian arts scene, is a lot of precarity, a lot of loss of jobs, loss of funding, and at the same time we are seeing that the corporations funding our museums are also funding genocide.”

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