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Culture Report: The New Children’s Museum Is Officially the First Museum in San Diego to Unionize

New Children's Museum union
Hannah Mykel and Jill Grant, employees at the New Children’s Museum, spearheaded efforts to form the first museum union in San Diego. / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

The workers involved in successfully collectivizing the New Children’s Museum are ready to speak out about what drives them: the future.

“We’re at that intersection between arts, nonprofits and children, and it’s just this triple whammy,” said New Children’s Museum employee Hannah Mykel, who is a senior play worker and part of the volunteer organizing committee that led the efforts to form a union. “What we’re most challenging is this sort of forced narrative of ‘This is just the way it is, folks,’ and it doesn’t have to be like that.”

The organizing committee filed its intent to unionize [1] last month with the National Labor Relations Board.

The museum opted not to voluntarily recognize the collectivizing. This is typical, said Anabel Arauz, the group’s representative at IBEW Local 465. It forces an official election that requires a majority vote.

The election, managed by the NLRB, took place last weekend. Of the 48-member bargaining unit — which is the segment of non-supervisory workers at the museum eligible to join the union — 34 voted in favor of forming the union, well over the required majority, making the New Children’s Museum officially the first museum in San Diego to unionize.

In a statement from Judy Forrester, CEO and executive director of the New Children’s Museum, she outlined the existing competitive compensation packages provided to employees, particularly full-time employees, and expressed support and admiration for the employee’s drive to organize.

“We understand that there is a national trend of unionizing museums including, but not limited to The Guggenheim, The Museum of Tolerance, Museum of Modern Art, The Exploratorium and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. We appreciate the passion of our employees that led them to explore becoming part of this larger movement,” said Forrester.

Organizing Employees Speak Out for the First Time

In the weeks since the workers filed with the labor board, I spoke with two of the organizing workers, Mykel and Jill Grant, a fellow senior play worker, on several occasions.

At the forefront of unionizing is a living wage. The bargaining employees want to make clear that their benefits should not come at the expense of visitors by raising admission or membership prices. “We don’t want those two to be mutually exclusive,” said Mykel. The arts should not be a privilege, but a part of life, she said.

Mykel and Grant are transparent about their salaries and the problems with turnover and retention in the downtown institution. Mykel has been with the museum for four years, two as a full-time employee, and makes $13.91 an hour. “There’s often this feeling that because we have such a fun place to work, that should be enough. Or because it’s a nonprofit, you sacrifice your salary, you sacrifice your pocketbook to be able to do this really meaningful work, and there’s something really wrong with that dynamic,” she said.

The New Children’s Museum / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Arouz said that the bargaining unit’s immediate managers are in a sort of “middle ground,” in which they’re ineligible to bargain a contract yet don’t have much seniority. “Our hope is that as our wages go up, theirs will too, because we know that they’re underpaid as well,” Grant said.

Twenty years ago, Mykel’s mother was part of a volatile (and failed) attempt to organize the call center at SDG&E. The process was fraught — her car windows were smashed during one shift — but it paved the way for future organizing, and this current movement at the New Children’s Museum, she said. “I’m sure I’ve absorbed it,” Mykel said.

‘What’s the Best Thing That Could Happen?’

The museum’s philosophy on “risk benefit assessments” in children has inadvertently prepared these young workers for the risks of organizing.

“If I do this thing, if I climb this tree, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I could break a leg, I could get a concussion, I could die. But what’s the best thing that could happen?” mused Mykel. The museum teaches kids to focus on the best outcomes, not the worst, or their fear will prevent action and growth.

To the organizing employees, the best thing is worth it. “We have a hand in changing the culture of our workplace and our field. That is so worth whatever risk might be along the way, whatever kind of messy relationships, even retaliation,” said Mykel.

“And,” said Grant, “we’re legally protected. This is our democratic right, and we’re just exercising it.”

What’s Next?

The union is formalized within 10 days of the election, and negotiations could begin immediately after that. At the bargaining table, Grant and Mykel hope to address wage disparity, compensation, innovative sources of funding and making employee voices heard.

“Then once we negotiate our contract, it goes to a vote,” said Arouz. “The workers vote if they’re comfortable with that contract or not. Everything is voted on.”

Preservation and Healing Through Mexican Papier-Mâché Dolls

The Mingei Museum, still steadfastly championing folk art even during its Balboa Park renovation, will host visiting artisan Ramona Garcia. Now based in Sacramento, Garcia was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, where many artisans still practice papier-mâché doll-making.

Ramona Garcia’s papier-mâché dolls. / Photo courtesy of Ramona Garcia

She’ll delve into the toy’s history, traditions, instructions and craft and more during a workshop on Saturday [2] at the Athenauem Arts Center in Logan Heights, as part of the Mingei’s Mexican Folk Art Pop Up exhibition. There’ll also be a donation-based workshop on Sunday (contact the Mingei [3] to sign up).

“Not only was this the doll that my grandmother and aunties grew up playing with, but during my healing journey and recovery from disordered eating, it was the one object that helped me make sense of what I was going through,” Garcia said. “I began to see how this articulated doll can be a useful tool when working with it in an expressive art context.”

During a workshop, participants prepare each body part separately, and then sew the segments together. She teaches her students how this process can alleviate disconnected, dysmorphic or dismembered perceptions in their own bodies.

Ramona Garcia will teach a workshop at a Mingei Pop Up in Logan Heights. / Photo courtesy of Ramona Garcia

Garcia is also dedicated to preserving the tradition. “Today, the art of papier-mâché dolls is at risk of disappearing as artisans are challenged by a lack of support or simply the loss of interest in their products by the younger generations,” Garcia said. Through teaching, she brings awareness, and she also collaborates with remaining artisans in Guanajuato to help them further their work.

The Mingei’s Mexican Folk Art Pop Up [4] exhibition runs through Dec. 12 at the Athenaeum Arts Center.

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