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As Walters Art Museum opens for the first time since coronavirus struck, employees express safety concerns

Employees at The Walters Art Museum are expressing concerns over coronavirus safety protocols.
Employees at The Walters Art Museum are expressing concerns over coronavirus safety protocols. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun)

Staff members of the Walters Art Museum made a public plea Thursday for the institution to close its doors for the duration of the pandemic, arguing that the cultural warehouse is unsafe for visitors and for them.

“Whoever made the decision to reopen is more concerned about the public and their enjoyment of the museum than about the lives of their employees,” said security officer Daniel Williams, 22.

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Williams is among the creators of the Instagram account @abetterwam — the most recent in a series of rebellions nationwide protesting what staff members describe as poor working conditions at museums ranging from inadequate COVID-19 safety precautions to demonstrations of racism and sexism.

The @abetterwam account includes an open letter to museum leaders that by Friday had been signed by 45 of the Walters' 158 full and part-time employees, plus an additional 100 museum guests, artists and former staff members.

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The group went public with their concerns just days after Baltimore’s two largest museums, the Walters and Baltimore Museum of Art, welcomed guests for the first time since cultural institutions statewide were shuttered under orders of Gov. Larry Hogan.

Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander said she thinks the museum is as safe as it can be while the world is battling an invisible and infectious microscopic organism. The Walters spent months working to develop a blueprint for reopening that she said matches or exceeds standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection and the federal Occupational and Safety Health Administration.

On Thursday afternoon, as a steady stream of visitors flowed through the front door, Marciari-Alexander repeated a question posed to her by a Sun reporter

“Is the Walters safe for the public?”

“The answer is a resounding yes. I believe that the museum is also safe for the staff. I have a deep sense of empathy for the nervousness that our staff feels as we dip our toes into the waters of communal living. This is a work in progress. But we have to start somewhere.”

Both Williams and Morgan Dorsey, 21, a co-creator of the petition, said they are less concerned about the specific protocols adopted by the Walters than they are with whether any museum should reopen before a vaccine for COVID-19 can be developed.

“We’ve only been open a day and a half," Dorsey said, “and already there have been complications. Visitors take off masks repeatedly. They take them off in the elevator, which is a small, enclosed space. What happens after they get out and the next person gets in and breathes that same air?”

Similar concerns are being raised by staff members at museums from New York to Akron, Ohio, to Richmond, Virginia, that have been using submission-based Instagram accounts to post anonymous stories of workplace abuses.

The best-known of these accounts is @changethemuseum, which has 35,500 followers. A post in June that quoted a curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as saying that it “would be reverse discrimination” to stop collecting the works of white male artists ignited an art world uproar that didn’t end until the curator resigned in July.

A key concern of @abetterwam involves the hazard pay that employees who work in the building have been receiving since June. This group of workers received double salary from mid-March through the end of June, when the premium was reduced to 1.5 times their standard salary. The extra pay is only guaranteed through mid-October, and staff members argue that eliminating it would create a double standard.

“Essential workers made up of the maintenance, engineering, and security departments have assumed 100% of the risk associated with coronavirus transmission,” the letter reads.

Reducing their salaries to pre-pandemic levels, the letter says, would "position front-line employees to face the constant threat of COVID-19 exposure at their regular pay rate, while the museum continues to pay other employees to work from home with little to no risk of exposure.”

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The concerns raised in the petition are scheduled to be discussed at a staff meeting next week, a museum spokeswoman said.

Marciari-Alexander noted that the rationale for reopening the Walters isn’t primarily financial. Because the museum is free, it doesn’t depend on admission fees to drive annual revenues. In addition, the board of trustees has temporarily put a stop to another major revenue stream and is not renting out the museum for weddings or private parties.

She said that museums are essential institutions when society is under stress.

“Our mission is to bring people together for enjoyment, discovery and learning,” Marciari-Alexander said.

“The Walters is guided by the belief that art and history play vital roles in shaping people’s beliefs and connecting us with each other, and right now, during a time of crisis in our country and our world, we have a responsibility to be open alongside our fellow cultural institutions across the city.”

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