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Museums Cut Staff as COVID-19 Bites

Many sectors have been put into an economic tailspin as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which has swept the world throughout 2020. However, those industries that serve the public have been particularly hard struck since government after government across the globe started to introduce social distancing policies. Bars, restaurants, theatres and sporting venues have all been forced to close their doors leading to mass job losses in the associated industries. In the museum sector, all sorts of public institutions are now faced with terrible dilemmas about what to do with the staff on their books.

In some cases, museum management boards are doing everything they can to reassure staff about their futures. Some government schemes to furlough affected staff – effectively to have the state underwrite a big proportion of their wages during the various lockdowns – have made it easier for museums to continue to keep employees on their payroll despite them not being able to report for work. In other cases, research work has been ongoing, albeit with people having to adapt to working from their homes. Nevertheless, museum job losses are happening – and some significant ones to boot!

Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio

The Cleveland Museum of Art announced in March that it expects to see a loss in its usual revenue of $5 million despite not knowing when the social restrictions currently in place will end. Its management team said that it would be forced to lay off every single employee who has a part-time contract and that full-time staff members would be granted a leave of absence. The move is expected to include its security guard team, some of whom are unionised members.

In a further move, the museum said that it would mandate a wage reduction programme on all of its non-unionised full-time employees. It is estimated that this could mean a drop in income of about 15 per cent for some of those affected. Contracted staff will see all of their project work suspended with immediate effect. According to William Griswold, the gallery’s director, the primary aim of these moves was to, “preserve jobs as best we can.”

The Science Museum and the Children’s Museum, Minnesota

In late March, the Science Museum of Minnesota said that it would be laying off the vast majority of its employees until the viral contagion has been brought under control. No fewer than 87 per cent of the museum’s employees are now expected to lose their main source of income as the museum moves to a virtual programme of online-only content. This follows a 12-week closure that the museum had announced in the middle of the month. CEO Alison Brown said that the closure had been the right decision in order to maintain the safety of her museum’s employees as well as the general public. However, she conceded that her ruling to lay off staff had been a tougher one to make. “It is unfortunately necessary,” she said, “as we consider the longer term viability of the museum.” About 450 of the total staff number of 500 will be laid off from the start of April.

Also in Minnesota, the nearby Children’s Museum said that it would be largely following suit. Instead of a temporary programme to lay off museum employees until the crisis has passed, the management team at the Minnesota Children’s Museum announced that it would furlough three-quarters of its employees until June and perhaps beyond that time. This particular institution has around 150 employees on its payroll at present. That number is now expected to shrink to as few as 30. Those who will continue to be in employment are considered to be in essential roles, such as providing maintenance works and making funding applications. However, all these employees are also expected to have to sign up to new working conditions including lower pay.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in California has also informed some of its employees that they will be laid off as a result of the Covid-19 emergency. It wrote to all of its part-time staff members in March to inform them that they would be laid off. The affected number of employees at the gallery number about 100. They include exhibition installers, gallery attendants, retail employees, educational workers and some of those in its audiovisual crew. A spokesperson for the museum said that it had chosen to make the decision over its part-time employees as early as possible so that they would be eligible for unemployment benefits and so that any holiday pay they had thus far accrued could be paid out.

MOCA now has approximately 85 staff members left on its payroll. What the future for its full-time employees might be remains uncertain, however. The museum’s management team have yet to make any further announcements about them. MOCA defended its decision by saying those affected by the lay-offs were not workers who could feasibly carry out their work during the gallery’s closure. In a statement, the museum said it was facing up to the, “extremely difficult circumstances created by [the virus and that it wanted]… to support community health and well-being.”

Elsewhere in Los Angeles, the Hammer Museum said that it would lay off about 150 of its staff. The museum – which is affiliated with UCLA – will shed jobs among its student employees to begin with but has not ruled out further job losses down the line. Most of those affected provided direct services to visitors so their jobs could not be safeguarded, according to the museum. “We hope that many of our part-time staff members will return to us later this summer,” an unnamed representative for the institution told the press. According to the museum, those affected will continue to receive their usual pay until April 10th.

Glenbow Museum, Calgary

American institutions are not the only ones to have decided that large-scale job losses are the way forward during the global healthcare crisis. In Canada, the Glenbow Museum has already laid off about four fifths of its employees. The institution holds the largest non-governmental set of archives in the whole country. Indeed, it also houses tens of thousands of books as well as works of art. A spokesperson for the Alberta-based archive and museum said that those impacted by the decision include full-time, part-time and casual staff. In addition some members of the management team at the museum are believed to have already lost their jobs.

According to the museum’s CEO, Nicholas Bell, all such institutions are ‘human-centred spaces’ that depend upon people to make art relevant within the community. Nevertheless, the enforced closure of the Glenbow Museum is expected to leave a 60 per cent gap in the institution’s funding, so Bell said that intense pressure would be placed on the museum’s future finances. “This is a temporary measure to combat the impact of the crisis ,” he said. “We fervently hope that we will be able to regroup with our team on the other side.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

In the middle of March, the Metropolitan Museum of Art said that it expected to see a huge loss of revenue as it closed its doors to the public. The Met, which is one of the most-visited cultural institutions in the United States, said that it thought its losses could mount up to as much as $100 million before its planned reopening takes place later this summer. According to the gallery’s senior staff members, it had already begun preparing for financial hardship before the decision to close was taken. It has proceeded with a plan that began with all staff members working from home. The Met confirmed that its employees would continue to receive pay until April 4th but said that after that period, furloughs and lay-offs would be considered. It also said that voluntary retirements may be sought among some staff members.

Going forward, the financial plan incorporates measures to control non-essential spending and to lower operating costs. In a statement, the gallery said that it would reopen with a reduced programme of events designed to meet the lower cost structure it would put in place. It is also reallocating a proportion of its current budget – some of which would have gone on acquisitions – to the next financial year as it expects reduced income from visitor numbers as the tourism and leisure industries take time to return to their pre-pandemic levels.

Daniel Weiss, the gallery’s president and chief executive, said that the crisis represented an extraordinarily challenging time for everyone in the museum sector today. “We are attempting to be as proactive as possible in a profoundly uncertain environment,” he added. According to Weiss, the Met’s payroll runs at a figure that is in the region of $16 million each month. “That burns fairly fast,” he said before commenting that future lay-offs are likely to be an inevitable outcome as the crisis continues to tighten its grip in global cities around the world like New York.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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