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At the MFA, a changing of the guards?

Amid a labor dispute with the guard union and troubling water leaks near masterpieces, the museum seeks a path forward.

Members of the MFA’s in-house security department covered objects during the leak on Feb. 4.

While the soup-wielding climate activists of Europe have yet to target the Museum of Fine Arts, the Huntington Avenue collection has been under a different kind of threat recently: Over the past two years there have been a pair of troubling water leaks in the building, including one earlier this month, caused by freezing pipes that burst in the attic, sending water pouring into the galleries below.

No artworks were damaged in either incident, MFA officials said. That’s in part because the museum’s in-house security guards were quickly on the scene, deploying plastic coverings to protect masterpieces and using garbage cans to catch falling water — work praised by MFA officials, who said the museum was “grateful for their action.”

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But the museum’s security officers say their situation could change dramatically if management prevails in the increasingly bitter contract negotiations with the guard union. Their main concern: management’s proposal to transfer their employment to an outside security firm.

“They want to end our employment with the museum,” said John Moore, president of the Museum Independent Security Union, known as MISU. “In order to stay working at the museum, we would have to undergo a background check from an outside company that would take on our union and become our employer.”

The number of in-house security guards at the MFA has plummeted in recent years, and the museum already relies often on outside guards to fill any shortfalls.

In a pair of letters addressed to the union’s roughly 50 security officers, MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum sought to assure them the museum will “keep the security unit whole.”

We “are committed to ensuring that all members of the MISU would remain in their current positions even if there was a transfer of employment,” Teitelbaum wrote in a letter dated Feb. 7 and shared with the Globe. “Above all, we are committed to working only with a partner that shares the MFA’s values and understands the role of each member of the security team.”

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The museum’s director of public relations, Karen Frascona, said the MFA needs to outsource guard duties and management because it faces “increasingly complex security issues.” She added that outsourcing guards would free up managers to focus on “a more global and strategic approach to ensuring the safety of our staff, visitors, and the collection.”

“We believe this is the most effective way for MFA security to remain strong in the years ahead,” Frascona said via e-mail. She added that the museum would only move forward once it has identified a firm that “can match the compensation and generous benefits that our protective services staff enjoy today and will continue to enjoy under our proposed contract.”

John Moore, an MFA security guard and president of the guard union, distributed fliers outside the MFA.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The conflict arrives at a critical moment for museums, as their workers across the country have sought to unionize and pandemic-era ticket sales remain anemic. Meanwhile, museums have been under pressure to reduce their overt security presence, even as climate activists target their galleries for high-profile stunts, including throwing food at artwork.

In Boston, the recently formed MFA Union went on strike before signing its first contract agreement last summer. Meanwhile, museum visits remain far below pre-pandemic levels, with 550,000 fewer visitors in 2022 than in 2019, a decline of nearly 45 percent. The museum’s operating budget is also diminished, off some $8.5 million between fiscal years 2019 and 2022.

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Then there are the leaks.

On Jan. 3, 2021, a computer malfunction caused HVAC coils to freeze and burst in the attic above a large gallery devoted to Impressionism. The rupture, which occurred while the museum was shuttered by the pandemic, sent water flowing down a gallery wall, coursing behind prized masterworks by Manet, Gustave Caillebotte, and Degas.

In the second incident, on Feb. 4, as temperatures in the negative double digits wreaked havoc on pipes around the city, a mechanical failure caused a coil in the same attic to freeze and fracture. Water cascaded from the ceiling into one of the museum’s newly renovated galleries for Dutch and Flemish art, dripping near Golden Age splendors including a pair of beloved Rembrandt portraits.

An earlier leak in a large gallery devoted to Impressionism sent water streaming down the wall and behind works by Manet, Degas, and Gustave Caillebotte.

Though the affected artworks emerged unscathed from both flooding events, the 2021 leak caused minor damage to several frames, which have been repaired.

Frascona said the MFA continues to “review and identify” the building’s needs, including “best options to condition the attic climate so that extreme temperatures do not cause future issues.” She added that the museum installed internal alarms following the 2021 leak, which “immediately notified the engineers,” who then located the leaks and turned off the valves during the more recent incident, in February.

Even so, guards say it was partly their experience and expertise that helped ensure the artwork remained safe.

“The reason we knew what to do is that it happened two years ago,” said one guard who requested anonymity out of concern of professional reprisals. “After the first leak, I thought they would take it seriously and have a better response.”

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Frascona praised the guards’ work, noting “the officers acted quickly and followed our protocol of observing and reporting any security issues they see to a supervisor.”

Currently, the MFA augments its in-house security with guards from a pair of security firms on an “as needed” basis. Meanwhile, the number of in-house guards has dwindled: just 52 now, compared to more than 100 at the end of 2014, according to the museum.

The remaining guards tend to skew older, said Moore, who estimated more than 70 percent of them have been at the MFA a decade or longer.

“We’re experienced, we know that building, we bring commitment and loyalty,” said Moore, who after 35 years makes $21.76 an hour, plus benefits. “Nothing personal against subcontractors, but if they’re working at the museum one day and a department store the next, I can’t imagine them being all that committed.”

MISU’s diminished ranks worry other museum employees as well.

“With fewer MFA guards circulating in the galleries, staff have noticed an increase in the number of visitor interactions with artwork,” MFA Union leadership wrote in an open letter. “We do not believe the MFA is best served by contract guards who are unable to adequately protect staff, visitors, and the collection.”

Low guard numbers are due in part to the pandemic, said Frascona, who added that the museum has struggled to fill open positions after it lifted pandemic-induced hiring freezes.

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“This is another reason we are considering partnering with an outside organization that possesses the scale, resources, and expertise to invest in our protective services team,” she said. The museum is seeking a firm that can offer “expanded professional development, training, and educational opportunities,” Frascona said.

Until recently, the MFA paid guards a starting hourly rate of $15.75, plus benefits. It now offers new guards $18.50, and its current proposal includes annual pay raises.

“Everybody’s having trouble finding people,” said Steve Keller, a Florida-based cultural property security consultant. “The solution to that is simple: Pay what the market requires.”

Some guards have considered going on strike, but their contract, currently on extension, has a “no-strike” clause, said Moore, who’s been organizing a leaflet campaign outside the museum each weekend.

And while the MFA has sought to assure them that any change would have minimal effect on their day-to-day jobs, benefits, and pay, the question remains: What happens when the contract ends and guards must negotiate with their new employer?

The “MFA’s strong preference would always be to keep the MFA family together,” said Frascona. But “responsibility to negotiate for future collective bargaining agreements would fall primarily to a potential future employer.”

Clifford Cunningham, who’s worked for a decade as an MFA guard, said the sense of acrimony over the issue is “palpable.”

“It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “Our people have been there 20, 30 years — you can’t just bring somebody on and gain all that experience back.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.