BrokenSphere / CC BY-SA

July 8, 2020; ArtNet

ArtNet News reports that a new wave of layoffs is occurring as museums reopen their doors amid new depressed revenue expectations. Specifically, it reports that at least 17 organizations have laid off an estimated 1,350 staff in the last month. These include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The math is relatively simple; many of these facilities have been under closure for three months or more due to the pandemic, while the average museum, per a 2016 survey from SMU DataArts, has just six weeks of cash in hand.

This new wave of layoffs comes just as the time period for the use of PPP loans is expiring. It’s not exactly a surprise, but observers—and the employees in question—see laying off frontline staff as an ethically and morally questionable move for nonprofits with wealthy donors and executive staff. ArtNet cites the case of SFMOMA as an example:

SFMOMA had nearly 500 employees before lockdown. In March, it announced that it would lay off 135 on-call workers while furloughing or reducing hours for an additional 188, some 60 percent of its staff. A $6.2 million PPP loan meant that the cuts were limited only to the on-call workers. But the museum still faces an $18 million deficit going into the new fiscal year, and at the beginning of June announced the layoff or reduced schedules of 55 staffers, effective at the end of that month.

When the PPP money came in, SFMOMA staff started a petition warning that ”while this is a temporary reprieve for SFMOMA workers, we know that this simply kicks the can down the road.” A second petition asked the museum to reconsider layoffs, saying that “staff at all levels have offered to decrease their hours or pay, to share what workload exists in order to preserve all of our jobs.”

Employees who signed the petition have been critical both of executive level pay and wealthy board members for not attending to issues of equity. They are not alone in pushing for a more transparent examination of the choices being made and for more sacrifice on the part of those who can afford it.

“This is particularly egregious given the discrepancy between the healthy financial markets and plummeting employment rates,” says Art and Museum Transparency, a collective of art workers. (You can read about that important group here.) “It is important to recognize that board members can afford to support staff through this, but are choosing not to.”

“We believe museums should honor their professed commitments to equity by supporting those staff who need it the most—the lowest paid and most precariously employed—and by cutting pay or reducing hours for those who need it the least—the highest paid and most securely employed,” the organization says.

Unfortunately, some project another wave of layoffs for August.

“There’s a general psychological weight for art and museum workers now—those that have not yet been laid off or furloughed know that more layoffs are imminent, but lack a seat at the table in decisions directly affecting them, so are working in a state of limbo for weeks at a time,” says Art and Museum Transparency.—Ruth McCambridge

Disclosure: NPQ received a PPP loan in the amount of $202,432.56.