The PinchukArtCenter (PAC) in Kiev is currently in the middle of a labor dispute with thirty former part-time employees, mainly students, who worked as guides and mediators at the high-profile contemporary arts space, which administers the prestigious Future Generation Art Prize. The staffers claim that they were fired from the institution after they formed a trade union, and have penned an open letter asking the art world for support.
The letter alleges that the workers faced “systematic violations” of their labor rights during their employment at the center, and accuses management of disallowing sick days, issuing lengthy probation periods, and offering contracts which did not fully convey their working conditions. The guides and mediators, who are stationed throughout the center’s galleries and are responsible for answering any questions related to the artworks on view, banded together in the fall to launch a union drive.
After they established the Trade Union of PinchukArtCentre in October 2019, there were some improvements, including sick days and paid leave, but the ex-staffers claim their organizing ultimately led to threats of mass dismissal and that their subsequent efforts to initiate collective bargaining failed because the center allegedly refused to acknowledge their attempts to negotiate until their contracts expired.
Over the past year, working conditions at arts museums and organizations have become international news and unions have successfully been formed at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City; the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles; and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Museums that have been accused of employing firms known for union-busting or of discouraging unions have faced widespread criticism.
When asked about the backlash, the PinchukArtCenter told Artforum that the ex-employees were not dismissed. They are only hired to work during the run of an exhibition and their contracts are for an average of sixteen hours per week. Management said that the decision to not renew their contracts when they expired at the end of the center’s last exhibition were due to long-standing plans to overhaul its current mediation model by potentially replacing short- and part-time contracts with full-time positions—not because of the union activity.
In an attempt to explain its new direction, the center previously published a statement about its restructuring on Facebook on February 20, but the open letter only further riled the former staffers, who said that it cited “incompetence” as the reason for discontinuing its guide and mediation program in an attempt to discredit their claims of labor violations.
In a Facebook post on February 29, artistic director Bjorn Geldhof issued an apology for the letter and for seeming “ignorant of hopes and expectations of the students who worked as mediators.” He added that the letter was not intended as a “statement against dialogue with people who self-organized” and that management hopes that the establishment of an internal committee comprising artists, external arts professional, and members of the Trade Union of PAC “will give us a good way forward to rethink the interaction with the audience at PAC.”
The allegations, reported first by Ukrainian media outlets, have led Pavlo Grazhdanskij and Valentina Petrova, artists shortlisted for the $10,000 PinchukArtCenter Prize last month, to withdraw from the competition in an act of solidarity with the former staffers, who are now demanding that the center apologize for its actions, restore the practice of mediatorship, allow the guides and mediators to form a bargaining unit, and engage in negotiations until a contract is agreed upon.
In response to the accusations, the center provided Artforum with the following statement:
With regards to the recent open letter published by some short-term contracted student mediators, please note that the PinchukArtCentre is committed to and complies with all Ukrainian employment laws, which includes negotiations on union employee requests.
In relation to the artists who have recently commented on withdrawing from the PinchukArtCentre Prize, the PinchukArtCentre wholly supports the importance of freedom of expression and respects their decision. These artists have withdrawn themselves from being judged as part of the Prize but are still very much welcomed by the organisation and are included in the exhibition.
On Thursday, March 5, the PinchukArtCenter Prize was awarded to Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Himey. Special prizes were also given to Nikolay Karabinovych and Uli Golub. The PinchukArtCenter Prize exhibition closes in May.