What is the arts writer’s beat?

How did Philly's media cover the PMA strike, and why does it matter?

5 minute read
The north entrance of the PMA. Dozens of picketers holding signs march in a circle; at left, the giant inflatable union rat.
Philadelphia Museum of Art workers on strike on October 12, 2022, outside the museum’s north entrance. (Photo by Emily B. Schilling.)

It was quite an invitation, even if you’re used to schmoozing at art museums: breakfast with Modigliani and lunch with Matisse. At the Barnes Foundation’s October 12 morning media preview of its new exhibition, Modigliani Up Close—an event held in tandem with the afternoon media preview for Matisse in the 1930s at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—I met a critic with a New York-based publication. He asked me over bagels and fruit if I was heading to Matisse; I said I wasn’t, and I asked him if he was interested in the strike at the PMA that was then still ongoing.

“I’m an art critic,” he said. “That’s not really my beat.”

I know the arts beat—I’ve been covering the arts in Philly since 2007, and have been on the BSR editorial team for eight years. I think the art of Henri Matisse could survive without a BSR story, or maybe even the views of any art critic. But what about the working people behind the art we love? The ticketing staff; the conservators and curators and custodians; the administrators and the fundraisers, the scholars and educators? What do we in arts media have to say about them—or not say, if we cross their picket line to write about the art, but not their struggle?

Hoofing it to PMA

BSR writer Emily Schilling attended the Barnes event with me, and she walked up the Parkway while other journalists took a provided trolley. She took photos of the protest, interviewed several picketing workers, and got video of our media colleagues walking through the picketers to preview Matisse. While pulling away, the driver of the trolley honked in solidarity with the workers, drawing cheers.

We posted this video with our commentary on BSR’s Instagram account, where it’s gotten thousands of views over the last few days.

“Very disappointing to see journalists, some of whom work in unionized newsrooms, crossing a picket line,” BSR theater and music critic Cameron Kelsall commented.

Others who commented or shared the video thanked BSR for standing with the workers by not attending the event, including one who said, “Thank you for not crossing the picket line and covering this story from the outside—where the story truly is!”

Interview requests

On the inside, journalists heard from new PMA director Sasha Suda, who, according to WHYY arts reporter Peter Crimmins, spoke to about 50 members of the press. It was the first time she publicly acknowledged the workers’ strike, which began on September 26, her first day on the job, and by October 12 had been ongoing for more than two weeks.

On October 14, the same day that PMA union leaders called off the strike in advance of an agreement, the Inquirer ran an exclusive interview with Suda, who defended her absence from union contract negotiations, and twice vowed a commitment to “listening and learning.”

The same day, Artblog invited Suda to give an interview, in a post from incoming executive director and editor Julia Marsh and founding editor Roberta Fallon. But unlike our city’s larger media outlets (including those with unionized newsrooms), Artblog took a side.

Standing with the union

“We at Artblog are pro-union,” Fallon wrote. “We are flabbergasted that the museum management is dug into its strikebreaking stance.” She lauded the worth and skill of the museum workers and said “it is shameful to treat these workers as disposable and as if their service is not valued.” The piece goes on to quote several picketing union members.

The Streets Dept blog took a similar tack in the October edition of its monthly Local Tourist column. Conrad Benner and Eric Dale urged their readers to cancel their PMA memberships, avoid visiting the museum and its outposts while the strike continued, march with the workers, and support the strike on social media (after a flood of pro-union responses, the PMA closed social-media comments on its Instagram posts from October 9-17).

“Do we think that the PMA is ‘negotiating in good faith’ as they’ve repeatedly claimed in social media posts since the strike began?” Benner and Dale asked. “Absolutely not.”

Searching for Suda

As members of the media, we had the opportunity to interface with Suda before many of the museum’s own workers did—on October 12, while Suda spoke to the journalists inside, former PMA educator and current AFSCME District Council 47 organizer Sarah Shaw told BSR that non-managerial PMA employees hadn’t heard from Suda at all: no meetings, no messages.

In a June 10 conversation with WHYY, Suda touted her own hands-on union experience and said she was looking forward to negotiating with the PMA union. But in the October 14 Inquirer interview, she explained she did not participate in the negotiations because “it would have been irresponsible of me to weigh into decision-making when I have not been on the ground.” (This week, the Inquirer called that reversal a “baffling move”.)

The art of the future

The BSR team knows what it’s like to be on the ground in a tough industry. It’s increasingly difficult to fund and operate an independent, non-profit publication. Outlets like us are disappearing as American media outlets congeal into national partisan echo-chambers. But we believe in each other and in our future—a theme that surfaced when Schilling spoke to striking PMA workers.

“What we’re asking for is very little … I’m standing here for the younger generation,” said Nicole Von Whitaker, a retail staffer who took a job with the museum after her retirement from the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

“I’m here for the next person who gets this job,” said PMA art technician Paul Brinkley.

PMA coordinator of family programs Leigh Dale said, “I’m hoping there will be a ripple effect on other museums and institutions that helps people working in the arts.”

What is the arts writer’s beat? Are we still on it when we take a stand about something happening inside a major arts institution, and platform its workers instead of those at the top? Philly’s smaller, independent arts publications say yes.

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