Federal arts funding in the United States is something of a sore subject: in comparison to other places around the world, creatives in this country function in near-perpetual states of uncertainty, striving endlessly to be afforded the security of a grant or gallery representation. In the aftermath of the slashing of the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts years ago, wins have been few and far between. But recently, the first swath of $24.7 million in Biden administration cultural grants are beginning to be doled out. And there are other indications of positive change: workers at the Art Institute of Chicago have elected to unionize, marking the first time employees at that museum have chosen to do so.
The ongoing difficulties of the pandemic have laid bare the struggles of American museums to do many things at once: display robust rotating exhibitions, draw consistent audiences, and maintain healthy relationships with their full- and part-time employees. New grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities may help assuage these challenges. The Metropolitan Museum of Art—recently described by a former employee to Observer as not having “been an easy place to work at these past few years”—is getting $349,999 to focus on “biomolecule identification”; the University of California, Los Angeles is getting $310,362 to train prospective Native American curators and conservators; LACMA is getting $500,000 towards long-needed renovations.
In the midst of these positive institutional developments, inflation is at its highest since 1982, reflecting just how many challenges American workers are facing as the pandemic drags on. As consumer prices increase, that means wages need to increase too. As the New York Times pointed out on Tuesday, due to union intervention, guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are now being paid $16.50 an hour; guards at the MoMA receive $21.65 an hour; guards at the American Museum of Natural History get $15.51. As institutions implement their federal grants, it’s essential that they continue to keep workers in mind.