Tensions at Walker Art Center over policy that prohibits gallery workers from sitting

A group of union members who work at Walker Art Center have taken to social media in protest of a policy requiring that gallery assistants stand up on the job at all times.

Gallery workers said they were blindsided by the policy, which says the part-time, hourly employees can’t sit down while they keep an eye on the Minneapolis modern art museum’s paintings, sculptures and other exhibits. Walker management said that has long been a requirement of the job description.

“People would grab a stool for the day. It’s a reasonable accommodation for the job that it is, standing on the hard terrazzo floors,” said Michelle Maser, volunteer coordinator at the Walker and president of the AFSCME unit that represents Walker workers. “Most of the time it wasn’t that they couldn’t stand. They just wanted to sit periodically to help their own health.”

Gallery assistants came to her in late December, Maser said, following one-on-one meetings with managers who told workers they would need a doctor’s note in order to sit on a stool. Maser called a meeting with management; a town hall on the issue was held in January.

The chance to work among art has typically been a big draw, said Kei Scully, who has worked as a gallery assistant since 2022. But the mood has shifted amid the fight over the sitting policy, said Scully, adding that many of the people employed as assistants are elders or disabled.

“Seating was never an issue. Everybody could have the option to sit if they needed it. It was never something that was problematic,” Scully said.

The Walker’s preexisting expectations for the gallery assistant role were reaffirmed in January, according to a Walker spokesperson. Museum management said in a statement that they “are aware that some of our staff have shared concerns related to performing their job expectations. We value the critical role our team members play and will continue to work with their union representation to address these concerns.”

A summary of job expectations is proactively included in job postings for gallery assistants, Walker spokesperson Rachel Joyce said in an email. A current listing specified under physical requirements that prospective employees “must be able to stand for long periods of time.”

Assistants are asked to be attentive in the galleries and are expected to greet or thank visitors, provide information and work with the security team.

“This includes roving assigned galleries during low traffic periods and standing in designated areas when the spaces are busier throughout one’s shift,” Joyce wrote in the email. “This ensures preparedness to proactively address the needs of guests and the safety of works on view.”

The museum said they are ADA-compliant and that chairs and/or stools are reserved for gallery assistants who can’t meet the physical expectations of the job. Those “who need such an accommodation work with Human Resources to secure an exemption.”

Securing exemptions has been a confusing, stressful and expensive process for part-time employees who are not eligible for benefits, Maser said. The policy is compounded with recent cuts to gallery assistant hours, she added.

Employees delivered 51 postcards to management last week in hopes of a solution. On Saturday, they began posting the postcards to social media, where workers wrote of having stools available for more than a decade, or of recently being asked to stand during their shift or leave, the posts claimed.

The policy makes employees feel like their connection to the patrons and the art are not valued, Scully said: “I think having stool accommodations makes it so you can do your job accordingly.”

Maser said public support for the union on social media and in response to their call-to-action feels great.

“They don’t have to bargain with the union in order to rescind this policy. The union is not going to put up a fight,” Maser said. “This is something we want. This is something we’ve been asking for from the very beginning.”

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